Friday, 10 February 2012

Little Village (4*)

Little Village

I’ve frequently bemoaned the relative dearth of music fans who happen to have similar tastes to my own in these parts and here's a prime case in point. Had I been in the middle of the same sort of bunch of music fans I recall from my musical heyday there would've been someone in the crowd who'd have picked up a copy of Little Village.

Alternatively, had I been in a larger centre I may well have sighted this under-appreciated little gem in a cutout bin or second hand rack and weakened. After all, you'd expect that an album featuring the guitar of Ry Cooder, John Hiatt's vocals and songwriting, Nick Lowe on bass, vocals and the occasional writing credit and drummer Jim Keltner would be worth the price of a discounted admission.

Hiatt, Cooder, Lowe and Keltner had worked together on Hiatt's Bring the Family in 1987 and various permutations and combinations of the four had appeared on other projects credited to Cooder and Lowe, so it's not too difficult to see the origins of this 1992 album.

Originally the idea was to call the outfit Hiatus, and while most of the vocal duties were passed to Hiatt the idea seems to have been to produce a genuine four-way collaboration, which is fair enough as a concept, but democracy doesn't always work in a band situation.

Initial reactions when the album was released twenty years ago were very mixed, possibly due to the same degree of heightened expectation that tends to cruel highly anticipated supergroup collaborations.

If you'd heard and enjoyed Hiatt's earlier work (and particularly Bring the Family), loved the early Ry Cooder and noted Hiatt's presence on The Slide Area and Borderline, and spotted Lowe as a classy collaborator who could turn out a quirky song or three you'd probably have been licking the lips and anticipating a masterwork of staggering genius.

That's always going to be tough to deliver in an environment where you're making a band record featuring three strong performers who are used to calling the shots, so Lowe's summation of the album (of which Lowe has said, this rather limp record, which got limper and limper as certain members of the group messed around with it) might be understandable, because there are probably things on there he'd have done differently, and you'd suspect Cooder and Hiatt would have said something fairly similar.

Casting those issues aside might be difficult for the participants but having heard a sample of live Little Village via bootleg I was intrigued enough to chase down a download of the album. When you listen to it well removed from the high expectations of 1992 it's actually a rather good listen, provided you can remove yourself from expectations of stellar performance.

As an example of that, try Don't Think About Her When You're Trying To Drive, a track that would have been a highlight on a John Hiatt solo album, or Do You Want My Job, a bleak portrait of life in a place that may or may not be a fished out archipelago somewhere in the Pacific. 

For the rest of the album, Solar Sex Panel addresses male baldness and global warming issues with Hiatt espousing the virtues of his solar powered loving, The Action gives a sort of blow by blow description of a good time hangout, and Inside Job grooves along nicely around a Cooder solo. Six and a half minutes of Big Love might be a bit much to take if it wasn't for the fat rumbling licks Cooder slides in underneath the vocals, while Take Another Look switches the vocal spotlight to Lowe.

Then there's Do You Want My Job? On this description, the answer's a firm No, regardless of the tropical island vibe. 

Don't Go Away Mad has Hiatt front and centre in a track that grooves along pleasantly but doesn't have a lot going for it, though the guitar solo in the middle is kinda tasty, but with Fool Who Knows we've got Nick Lowe back on vocals in a trademark vocal performance in a song he obviously likes (he was doing it on tour with Ry Cooder in November 2009), interesting guitar action. 

There's a bit of motoring metaphor on She Runs Hot for Me, where everyone seems to be having a good time, that you might see continuing into Don't Think About Her When You're Trying to Drive. Yeah, sure it does, but it's another one in a lengthy series of heartfelt heartbreak Hiatt ballads where you're looking for the searing Cooder solo (on the surface you'd think it would be a natural fit) but the guitar work stays at the tasteful punctuation stage. 

Finally, there's a slick groove driving Don't Bug Me When I'm Working, complete with audio inserts from the Sonny Boy Williamson track that gave the band its name.

Now, when you line Little Village up against the best work from the three headliners it might come across as slightly lightweight, but that's in comparison with some very classy competition. Definitely worth a listen, particularly for Hiatt fans.

Oh, and those live bootlegs where Mr Cooder gets a bit more room to stretch out are worth chasing down as well...