John Hiatt doesn't break ground with his 20th studio album, "Dirty Jeans and Mudslide Hymns," but he doesn't need to. The songwriter's twangy take on the blues has always been reliable — from his releases to the stacks of songs covered by others — and this album delivers, too.
Hiatt typically has been able to evoke a scene, and here he captures a dead-end town (and narrator) on the rocker "Damn This Town" and a flashy Buick Electra on "Detroit Made." The traveling tune "Train to Birmingham" finds Hiatt's narrator drinking on a train, his despair buried just beneath a catchy melody that keeps the song chugging along.
Hiatt's trademark, besides his vivid storytelling, is his ominously raspy voice. Its hoarseness amplifies the emotions in the tender "Don't Wanna Leave You Now" and adds urgency to the bluesy "Down Around My Place."
It's tough for such a husky voice to get sentimental — the 9/11 tribute "When New York Had Her Heart Broke" will tug at heartstrings, but it is a bit too mawkish for someone of Hiatt's prowess. Still, one of the best songs is the poppy "I Love That Girl," showing that even Hiatt can channel his gruffness into a gentle sentiment.
-- Catherine P. Lewis