Gruff guy that he is, John Hiatt has a way of getting right to the point. So he starts out his eighteenth album by declaring, "Well I do my best thinkin' sittin' on my ass." It's an interesting contradiction -- a thoughtful and very literate songwriter who makes some of his best music on the fly, too fast to think about. His definitive album, 1987's career-making Bring The Family, took all of four days to bang out. While it's not quite up to that lofty standard, Beneath This Gruff Exterior is nevertheless quite fine. Not coincidentally, it took eight days to make. Now on the high side of 50, Hiatt has worked his way into a relaxed and comfortable groove that should take him to the end of his days. It sounds like he could go on cranking out records like this for decades. As on 2001's The Tiki Bar Is Open, Hiatt is reunited here with his old backing band the Goners; bluesy tones dominate more this time, highlighted by guitarist Sonny Landreth's bee-stinging leads. As always with Hiatt, the writing is both funny and first-rate. "How Bad's The Coffee" finds an inverse relationship between the quality of pie and coffee in diners, and "Almost Fed Up With The Blues" (a conceit that would be totally jive in lesser hands) is impressively sly. "I'm not getting old," Hiatt declares on "Uncommon Connection", the album's opening song. "I'm slowing down time, stopping it cold." Maybe not, but he's aging with amazing grace.