John Hiatt

At 41, John Hiatt may be getting older, but he's out to prove you're only as old as you play. On his 11th disc the music sounds livelier than that coming from performers half his age.

This lime, Hiatt has chucked the folkier sound that has made him a critic's darling over the past few years to recapture the rowdier rock style he used to favor. The aptly named opening track, "Something Wild," sets the tone. It's down-and-dirty rock, just behind grunge. Even when Hiatt slows things down with blues dirges like "Old Habits," there's a punkish defiance to his guitar riffs and his vocals.

Sure, Hiatt sometimes acts his age in his lyrics. With tunes like the title-track lament about disrespectful young rockers whom he's seen "smashing perfectly good guitars" or the observation that "there's only two things in life/ But I forget what they are" in "Buffalo River Home," he does sound a bit old and cranky, still the lively rock on the album works like musical Geritol, keeping him and anyone who hears it young and vital. (A&M)"

Smashing Pumpkins

This psychedelic pop masterpiece is one of the most important rock records of the year. These four antihero Chicagoans speak volumes about the misbegotten, the disenfranchised and the emotionally distressed. Their generation's battle cry is not "Stop the war," or "Save the whales," but rather "Life's a bummer/ When you're a hummer/ Life's a drag."

Lead vocalist-guitarist-songwriter Billy Corgan's visits to the psycho-couch for self-evaluation allow the Pumpkins to probe emotional depths while pummeling you with grungy guitar riffs, then rescue you with a delicate acoustic-guitar arpeggio. And often they do it all within the same song.

After its schizoid intro and thick guitar mantra-riff, the diminished, cascading guitar outro on "Hummer" sounds like a junkie finally nodding out after a tough day scoring on the street. The druggie feel continues in "Soma" (with guest piano by R.E.M.'s Mike Mills), which begins as a dream-journey ballad that is abruptly disrupted by a wall of loud, ugly, demanding guitars.

Butch Vig, who produced Nirvana's Nevermind and coproduced Gish, the Pumpkins' '91 smash debut album, also lent a hand on this subtle, refined, multilayered work. If you like rich textures, circus-freak song structure and unglued lyrics, step inside the Smashing Pumpkins' tent and check out Siamese Dream. (Virgin)"

Joshua Kadison

A barn door, an old upright piano, a denim shirt and bare feet—and that's just the cover art. So you pretty much know you're getting into something warm and familiar even before hearing Painted Desert Serenade, the impressive debut by Joshua Kadison, who is currently on tour with Jan is Tan. Kadison's 11 songs combine an ingratiating pop sensibility with vivid storytelling. On the mournful ballad "Mama's Arms," he laments the death of his mother, singing, "Going back to a lender age/ So full of confusion and rage/ Daddy says, 'Boys, your Mama's gone.' " Kadison's music isn't on the cusp of anything trendy like bell-bottoms and peace signs, but even the mainstream can provide its own deviant charm. (SBK)"

Marcus Roberts

Some pianists dazzle you with speed. Roberts can play as fast as anyone, but what puts him in a class by himself is his depth. Part of that involves the orchestral richness of his sound, the fullness of each note, even if that note is placed as delicately as a cat's paw on the lip of a bathtub. But what really sets the 30-year-old apart is the investigative passion and architectural imagination he brings to every song. In this, his sixth solo piano project, Roberts's gift for transforming such songs as Cole Porter's "What Is This Thing Called Love," Gershwin's "Embraceable You" and Ellington's "Mood Indigo" is matched by his ability to make his own brimming compositions sound as if they have always existed, and always will. (RCA)

Billy Joel

Of course Billy Joel isn't about to grunge out in a flannel shirt and artfully torn blue jeans. But the very first cut on this album has enough bellowing vocals and angry guitar to get him a green card in Seattle. "No Man's Land," a diatribe against the numbing sprawl of the suburban American wasteland, may be the nastiest Joel song oh record. If only the remainder of the collection followed through with this much sass, maybe River of Dreams would represent a great leap forward, instead of merely a little hop. But too many of these tracks borrow generically from the same sources—the Beatles, doo-wop, lounge pop—as every other Joel album. It's like déjà vu all over again. (Columbia)

>John Hiatt

BRIDGE OVER TROUBLED WATERS

WHEN JOHN HIATT WAS A TEENAGER in the '60s, rock was one of the blasts that ripped the generation gap wide open. Now that he's an adult, the Nashville-based singer-songwriter has used rock to mend that gap at home.

Hiatt was having trouble relating to his 15-year-old stepson, Rob, after he married the boy's mother, Nancy, in 1986. That changed when Rob asked his new dad who Led Zeppelin was. Suddenly rock and roll became a subject the two could share.

Rob started introducing Hiatt to the rugged guitar licks of Faith No More, Sonic Youth and Screaming Trees, which Hiatt would listen to as he drove the teenager to school. With Perfectly Good Guitar, "I was just trying to score some cool points with my kid, truth be told," says Hiatt of the new record, which brims with more rugged guitar riffs than you can shake a pick at.

The Indianapolis-born rocker—whose career has survived two decades, four record labels and 11 albums—has had his share of critical if not commercial success. This rowdy record he says has left him "feeling a good wind at my back, which had to do with hitting my 40s and not being so gosh-darn worried about what kind of music I'm going to make."

Rob has not critiqued the new disc yet, but his stepfather says that just making it was enough. "This is my Ferrari F40 and young, blond chick," says Hiatt with a throaty chuckle. "My wife agrees. It's a good thing to have your wife on your side during your midlife crisis."

  • Contributors:
  • Craig Tomashoff,
  • Mark J. Petracca,
  • Todd Gold,
  • Eric Levin,
  • Ron Givens.