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John Hiatt

Master of DisasterNew West

It's a rare turn to see the kind of late-in-career upswing experienced by John Hiatt. Originally a wry singer/songwriter in the Lowe/Costello mold, Hiatt picked up steam with 1987's Bring the Family and its follow up, Slow Turning, only to go hit or miss throughout the '90s. His last three albums, though, showed his focus rebuffed and sharper than before.

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Master of Disaster, Hiatt's latest, is no exception. It's produced by Memphis goodwill ambassador Jim Dickinson and a multigenerational crew of Memphis/Muscle Shoals players including North Mississippi Allstars Cody and Luther Dickinson, bassist David Hood, and keys man East Memphis Slim enlisted for support. The results are some of the most vivid and reassured performances Hiatt's ever given.

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The album's centerpiece is a delicately plucked "Cold River," a song about an abandoned child who is sent down a Texas river by his reluctant mom, a truck-stop prostitute. Hiatt colors it with such powerful imagery (the woman ascertains her pregnancy upon "missing the bloody rose") that you almost forget what an awful fate he's portraying. Whether giving props to the decidedly old-fashioned with "Old School" or conjuring the ghost of late Eddie Hinton on "Ain't Ever Goin' Back," Hiatt and his crack, tailor-made session band have created anything but a disaster with this one.

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John Hiatt plays Atlanta Botanical Gardens Sun., July 31. 8 p.m. $33. 1345 Piedmont Ave. 404-876-5859. www.atlantabotanicalgarden.org.