Just over two years ago Lilly Hiatt and the Dropped Ponies entered the Americana market with their fake it ‘til you make it, feisty ‘Let Down.’ For Ms. Hiatt the album was partly a travelogue of her introduction to the world of whiskey drenched towny bar stages from Arkansas to California. Unlike many first albums, Hiatt and the Dropped Ponies arrived to the scene with a sense of identity already intact. The varied topography and able transitions between emotional subject matter made the album a feast of an exciting new release.
All that was 2013, and for a musician just exiting her twenties two years might as well be a lifetime. This is more than evident on her latest release, ‘Royal Blue.’ (New West Records) A cursory examination of the album artwork means that unfortunately the Ponies were dropped. However, the most dramatic departure is only found when the needle hits the groove.
From the heady opening bars of lead in track “Far Away,” we are introduced to a project far darker than we should have necessarily anticipated after ‘Let Down.’ Hiatt wastes no time establishing a more mature, more dynamic perspective. Though the use of vague pronouns in lines like “I have never felt more far away than when you were right here.” the song’s protagonist dodges identifying the culprit involved, but after digesting in equal measure the follow up “Off Track,” containing heartsparked lines like, “Tell me when you get a grip.” It’s easy to see how ‘Royal Blue’ is an after-the-honeymoon response to many of the same themes brought about on her first record.
There’s a lot to the sentiment after the joy and exuberance of youth has worn away into something more stable yet by degrees more muted. Like the resonance of the lap steel weaving throughout the album’s 12 mid-tempo alt-country tracks there is something both baleful and beautiful implied, a driving force sustaining the audience through the lowest of retrospective lows. Royal blue, indeed.
There are some things in this life we must all go through. Love, heartbreak, a twenty-something’s searching, universal emotions the lot that have been a staple of all forms of popular music. However, Ms. Hiatt is one of a very finite group of musicians upstaged by more than just the artist’s grip of emotion. The name Hiatt is well understood and well respected in the Americana genre. Much like Nora Jones, Nancy Sinatra, or Roseanne Cash, Lilly Hiatt is a sapling sprouting in the shadow of a Redwood.
I am personally loath to draw comparisons between Lilly and her father, John Hiatt. Despite the successes captured on ‘Let Down,’ critical response focused more word count on her father than the album at hand. It should be no surprise then the matter is addressed on ‘Royal Blue.’ ‘’Somebody’s Daughter,’’ is a song that separates the woman from the girl. In it the narrator takes responsibility for herself while paying homage to the larger subject in a chorus of compromise, “I’m somebody’s daughter, and I’m going to be fine.”
Throughout ‘Royal Blue’ Hiatt retains everything that caught the ears of both critics and fans from her past work. Her voice is disparagingly lovely, conveying a depth of emotion a mere vocalist could never capture. The backing instrumentation compliments her vocal delivery with neither carrying nor competing for the brunt of the album. While the lyrics and music are decidedly more somber than her past effort, the content falls far from monotonous. The songs examine rather than expose the weightier aspects of love, longing, and remorse. Hiatt is no one trick Dropped Pony, and at every instance where the material may begin to lag a bit of humor is introduced to prop the project up and keep it from sliding sideways. See the comically titled, “Jesus Would’ve Let Me Pick the Restaurant,” or follow the late album stand out “Machine,” as it details the tricks and traps of modern womanhood and the sly reference to “flicking off your daddy.”
‘Royal Blue’ is an excellent addition to a burgeoning discography. It displays Hiatt’s ability to pivot between projects while nodding to the blessing and curse of her own inheritance. Say what you will for Cash, Jones, or Sinatra, Lilly Hiatt is proving the idea a dynasty might bear a second generation separate from but equal to its progenitor. Give it time, this Lilly Hiatt is a musician to watch.