Old cowpunks never die. Well, actually, they do, but first they get older, just like the rest of us. In the case of Amy Rigby, that’s been a distinct career advantage, allowing her to outgrow the goofy formalism of the music she made back in the ’80s with cowpunk outfit the Last Roundup and, later, her retro girl group, the Shams. On her first solo record, 1996’s Diary of a Mod Housewife, Rigby presented herself as a honky-tonk feminist, turning in a collection of first-person country-pop vignettes that chronicled an unhappy marriage (to former dB Will Rigby) and her post-breakup life as a working mom in Brooklyn. Burned repeatedly by looking for love in all the wrong places, Rigby gave hook-laden tracks like “Beer & Kisses” and “Down Side of Love” a melancholy edge, but if you called Diary bittersweet, you’d be only half right.
So don’t be fooled by the deceptive title of Rigby’s new album; there’s not much sweet about The Sugar Tree, either. Rigby is still a skeptic when it comes to affairs of the heart. On “Cynically Yours,” for instance, she sings a love letter that sounds drafted by divorce attorneys: “You know I love you one hundred percent of the amount I’m capable of loving you” is all Rigby is willing to admit. Later, a soap-opera organ whirs away and background singers chime in sardonically as Rigby recites a weary set of wedding vows: “I, your loving (blank), take you (insert name here)/Because frankly I’m just too tired to look around anymore.”
Elsewhere on The Sugar Tree, Rigby sounds like Liz Phair’s country cousin, substituting lust for love and enjoying it maybe a little too much. “Wait Til I Get You Home,” the pure-pop album opener, finds the singer dizzy with kisses but shy in a crowd: “You make me so happy/But there’s all these people around/So wait til I get you home and the walls come down.” Six tracks later, though, on the nearly perfect “Magicians,” Rigby turns simultaneously cynical and wide-eyed, responding to a lover who says he can’t survive on lust alone: “Let’s leave reality out of this shall we/No need to mention it, it’s always here…/We’re magicians/We make reality disappear.”
Throughout The Sugar Tree, Rigby’s band jolts her sometimes spare, ramshackle songs to life, moving deftly from Rolling Stones-style swagger (“Rode Hard”) to finger-picked folk balladry (“Let Me In a Little Bit”) to trashy blues rock (“Balls”). On the aching “Happy for You,” Rigby and her group serve up a Beatlesque country-pop opera, lacing pretty flourishes of pedal steel through an almost psychedelic swirl of electric guitars and cellos. Producer Brad Jones never lets the band overpower Rigby, who sings each of her handmade bad-love songs beautifully, in a reed-thin voice that makes her sound like Emmylou Harris’ gawky kid sister.
John Hiatt’s voice, on the other hand, is cracked like leather. The singer-songwriter came by it honestly, too, weathering a 26-year solo career that’s found Hiatt staring down the bottom of a lot of empty glasses, both metaphorically and otherwise. His early success as a professional songwriter (Three Dog Night scored a Top 20 hit in 1974 with Hiatt’s “Sure as I’m Sittin’ Here”) gave way to a turbulent solo career as label after label signed and then dropped Hiatt, who consistently failed to deliverat least commerciallyon the promise of his early days. Between bouts of binge drinking, Hiatt matched his frenetic label-hopping with stylistic wrong turns, at one point lurching into a New Wave synth record (the Tony Visconti-produced All of a Sudden) that was especially ill-suited to a vocalist clearly born to sing the country-rock blues. Commercial indifference continued, but subsequent records corrected the error, matching Hiatt with sonic soulmates Nick Lowe and Ry Cooder in a partnership that culminated in Bring the Family, Hiatt’s post-rehab breakthrough.
For his new Crossing Muddy Waters, Hiatt got back to basics, recording an album with just three musicians and, except for some occasional foot-stomping and a tambourine, no percussion instruments at all. The stripped-down arrangements suit Hiatt’s gravel road of a voice perfectly and focus attention squarely on his songs, which haven’t sounded this effortlessly powerful in years. Hiatt spent most of the ’90s lowering expectations, releasing a string of fair-to-middling LPs that each contained just a handful of memorable tracks. This time out, every song is a keeper. The title cut is a four-minute epic, with Hiatt spinning the title’s evocative image into a broken-family tale that perfectly matches the song’s mournful chord changes. “What Do We Do Now” works a similar theme, but the metaphors get more mundane and, consequently, more incisive. “We rode it long, we drove it hard,” Hiatt sings about a doomed love relationship. “And we wrecked it in our own backyard.” Spirits are higher on the mandolin-fueled opener, “Lincoln Town,” which borrows the jug-band cadence of Mungo Jerry’s “In the Summertime” and forgets to give it back.
Hiatt’s strength as a songwriter and performer notwithstanding, the man still has label troubles. He spent considerable time last year wriggling out of a deal with Capitol, and Crossing Muddy Waters had its official release on the Internet music label EMusic.com. Fortunately, the folkie aesthetes over at Vanguard knew a good thing when they heard it and wisely chose to provide a more conventional release for the record, which is clearly one of Hiatt’s best. Recorded in a mere four days (à la Bring the Family), Crossing Muddy Waters is a beautifully crafted album of country-folk songs, the best of which already sound like standards. CP