Out there

Heartland, but no soul
Walk On
John Hiatt
Capitol Records

A perennial journeyman on his fourth label in 20-plus years, Hiatt has seen his shots at fame come and go; once a new-waver pegged as the Elvis Costello of the Heartland, later resurrected as a roots-rocker with influential friends, he's gone far and nowhere at all. Walk On likely won't be his ticket out of the sticks, either, not even with help from Bonnie Raitt (who got her second shot at fame covering a Hiatt song, so where's the justice there?) or the Jayhawks, who probably wouldn't allow one of these songs on their own records because they know better.

And so should Hiatt: For a man who once crafted such meticulously wry and witty and clever songs, whether they were masquerading as love poems or put-downs, Hiatt has simply run out of things to say. Two decades into a career and he's up and committed the last great sin of the exhausted songwriter, shoveling out the cliches and hoping no one will notice they taste like yesterday's leftovers: "howling wind," "midnight train," "a street where nobody even knows your name," "steam rising from the sidewalks," "she lived 10 lifetimes in five years," "the river knows your name," "my whole life flashed before me," and so on. Comparatively, "Thing Called Love" was absolutely revelatory.

Pussy galore
Boss Hog
Boss Hog
DGC Records

Jon Spencer loves and hates rock and roll (and the blues, and funk), and it shows: Every time he steers close to an actual melody, he buries it underneath so much distortion and noise and feedback and atonal riffs, but not enough to hide the thing he didn't want you to see in the first place. Which doesn't work so well in his Blues Explosion (in which New Yawkuhs discover Muddy Waters and find it's too fucking hard to play) but works wonders in Boss Hog, a "side project" that's not above admitting it's all a joke and not an entirely ironic one at that.

Fronted by Spencer and gal-pal Cristina Martinez, Boss Hog is the ultimate synthesis of the Pixies' inside-out pop, the B-52s' dysfunctional new-wave, Atlantic R&B's soul, PJ Harvey's howling post-blues, the Beastie Boys' avant-rap. It's funky and heavy, loud and pissed-off ("Fuck school!"), hilarious ("I ate raw macaroni") and hilariously Gothic ("I'm in Texas/I'm in pain"); and while even the "punk" songs throb with a funky beat, the real standout is "I Idolize You," post-punk Ray Charles with Martinez as a one-woman Raylettes.

--Robert Wilonsky