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October 13, 1993

Squeeze Me

SqueezeSqueeze, Some Fantastic Place (A&M 1993) -- Some Fantastic Place marks the return of popmasters Squeeze to their old stomping grounds, A&M Records. On the quintette's twelfth release (and first since 1989) the group displays its signature qualities -- solid song writing, great grooves, and a smooth pop feel.

Songwriters Chris Difford and Glenn Tilbrook have written over a thousand tunes, and have formed one of the most productive partnerships in pop history. (Some critics have gone out on a limb and compared them to Lennon and McCartney). Squeeze really hit their stride in the late 70s and early 80s, particularly with the smash single "Tempted," which can be found on the must-own compilation disk, Singles -- 45 and Under.

Some Fantastic Place marks the welcome return of songwriter/keyboardist Paul Carrack to the band, and the addition of the crisp, propulsive drumming of Pete Thomas, who spent many years as part of Elvis Costello's band, the Attractions.

Carrack, whose vocals made "Tempted" an almost perfect pop tune, is responsible principally for keyboards on the album, and is handed the microphone on only one cut ("Loving You Tonight"). The other numbers are sung by Tilbrook, and include the radio-friendly "Everything in the World" (which is already receiving a fair bit of airplay in Fresno) and the Caribbean-influenced "True Colors."

And this leads to an odd dichotomy. While frontman Tilbrook is an estimable vocalist, Carrack clearly has the stronger pipes. The Carrack ballad ("Loving You Tonight") is more in the mold of his Mike + the Mechanics work, and is also the only cut on the album that features a full horn section. It seems that Carrack isn't yet fully integrated into the band (or, fortunately, that the rest of the band doesn't fully endorse his brand of soft pop).

In any event, the band is well-oiled for this release, and as usual, the fine folks at A&M didn't stifle their creative juices. Some Fantastic Place is a smooth, infectious pop production -- but it seems a waste to have Carrack warbling on only one of the cuts.

CD Packaging -- Let's also give a big hand to A&M for putting out discs with coherent packaging. Unlike other labels which have taken to dispensing with the names of songs, and even with the name of the band, from the CD (so that when you open up your multi-disc player, you can't tell whose disc you hold), A&M still, sensibly, puts the name of the band on their releases, together with a listing of the songs on the disc. Mystery discs may be cute, but they can get old. Thank you A&M.

John HiattJohn Hiatt, Perfectly Good Guitar (A&M 1993) -- Forty- something blues rocker John Hiatt has found an extremely strong groove in the last five years, beginning with his one-off release Bring the Family. Perfectly Good Guitar marks a new departure for Hiatt, as he discovers a rock groove, and releases a strong blues-beast of an album.

In 1987, after kicking the bottle, Hiatt teamed up with seminal players Ry Cooder (guitars), Nick Lowe (guitars and vocals) and Jim Keltner (drums) to produce the acclaimed Bring the Family. I could never get into this album -- although fine in concept, Hiatt's singing was too gravely for my taste.

Hiatt then went on to achieve greater notoriety when the foursome adopted the name Little Village and toured behind their self-titled group release. Little Village received wide critical acclaim, but left an unpleasant aftertaste in your mouth -- it was almost like the band received all the hype to make up for the fact that the individual members had been previously overlooked.

Moreover, Ry Cooder's guitar playing can wear thin after a while -- it's all bottleneck slide and slow blues riffs, and places an undue emphasis on substance over form.

On Perfectly Good Guitar, Hiatt breaks loose from these restraints and finds new creative forces. As Hiatt notes, his fifteen year-old son was "dragging these tapes home by all these funny little bands . . . Like it's all of a sudden it's okay -- the three chords that I know are back in vogue. I had been off somewhere else for a while musically, and it perked up my ears. I got excited about it. I understood that sound."

The result is Perfectly Good Guitar, produced by Matt Wallace of Faith No More, and featuring Michael Ward from School of Fish on lead guitar, Brian McLeod from Wire Train on drums, and John Pierce on bass. The band's solid rock groove is well matched to Hiatt's raw blues/rock voice; the stronger cuts on the disc include the fullbore "Perfectly Good Guitar" and "Old Habits," in which Hiatt displays his ability to evocatively recall the shortcomings of his prior lifestyle.

School of FishThere is a new West Coast rock sound emerging, headed up by groups like School of Fish, Wire Train, and Big Head Todd. The sound is neo-rock\grunge -- or, as Hiatt notes, it's "a raw kind of sound . . . they're guys who like playing in three chords with a sense of purpose, but also one of abandon. And it's not easy to do that. A lot of guys can't get the knucklehead thing . . . but it takes a knucklehead to really get it right."

Perfectly Good Guitar is a fine release from Hiatt -- if you've previously tried to get into Hiatt, but have been put off by his musical company, this may be the album that opens the door.

-- Randy Krbechek

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