Sara Hickman: Two Kinds of Laughter -- by George Graham
(Shanachie 8029 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 4/22/98)
Singer-songwriter records can take an interesting variety of forms, from alternative rock to bluegrass. Usually, the distinctive aspects of such records have more to do with the lyrics and vocals than with the instrumentation and production, but that's not always the case. This week, we have an album that shows creativity in both the literary and auditory facets. It's the latest by Dallas, Texas-based Sara Hickman, entitled Two Kinds of Laughter.
Ms. Hickman defies the stereotype of the Texas singer-songwriter, a male cowboy storyteller epitomized by people like Jerry Jeff Walker and the late Townes Van Zandt. Ms. Hickman is a native of Houston, attending that city's High School for the Performing Arts. At North Texas State in Denton, she earned a degree in the visual arts, specializing in painting. While in college she often performed in various clubs, sometimes in the company of that highly eclectic polka band Brave Combo. After graduation, she recorded her debut CD for Brave Combo's record label, an album called Equal Scary People, which was picked up and released by a major label in 1989 after the Dallas Observer did a feature story on her. Following that came Shortstop, a CD which yielded the commercial hit I Couldn't Help Myself, and led to some television appearances.
Her third album, Necessary Angels, became an interesting case study in the machinations of the major record labels. Her record company at the time, Elektra, apparently didn't think that record was commercial enough, so it decided not to release it after it had been completed. Ms. Hickman appealed to her fans and raised the $40,000 Elektra wanted for the masters to the album. The CD was subsequently released by Discovery records, whose president, ironically was Jac Holtzman, who originally founded Elektra Records in the early 1950s.
Since then, Ms. Hickman has moved to the calmer climate of the independent label Shanachie, and last year released a collection of odds and ends entitled Misfits. Now she is out on the same record company with her new recording Two Kinds of Laughter.
This is an interesting record in a number of ways, the most notable of which is that it is a collaboration with guitarist Adrian Belew, best known for his work with as a member of King Crimson and for his own series of quirky solo albums. Ms. Hickman went to Belew's house in Nashville and quickly recorded her basic guitar tracks, then left it to Belew to fill in the blanks. He played all manner of instruments himself, overdubbing guitars, bass, drums, and even some sound effects, in time for Ms. Hickman to return later to finish off with her vocal performances. Such a procedure has the potential to create a disjointed record, especially with someone with a reputation for being an iconoclast like Belew, but the result is both tasteful and intriguing. The arrangements can take unexpected directions, but the songs remain at the center. Also Ms. Hickman has come up with compositions that are just as fascinating lyrically, with many being collaborations with other writers.
The arrangements range from more or less standard folkie acoustic guitar to a kind of quirky hip-hop groove. Ms. Hickman provides some of the guitars, with Belew playing everything else. Interestingly, there are relatively few of Belew's guitaristic and sonic trademarks to be heard.
Opening is the title song Two Kinds of Laughter, which presents a pop exterior to some bittersweet lyrics. <<>>
Several of the album's tracks are clever love songs. One of the best is Take Whatever I Can Get. The storyline revolves around seeing a guy reminding her of her now-former lover. <<>>
More in the mold of the classic folkie sound is Eight another complicated love song, whose subject is the standard novelty toy 8-ball that answers questions. This introspective-sounding piece is one of the album's highlights. <<>>
Ms. Hickman has been active for social causes and has done volunteer work for various organizations. One time in a psychiatric hospital, she came across a young man who had tried commit suicide and whose story stayed with her, eventually finding expression in this song whose nearly tragic lyrics contrast with the often upbeat musical setting. The result, entitled Secret Family, is fascinating. <<>>
One of the more whimsical sets of lyrics is I Wear the Crown, another unconventional love song, give an appropriately fanciful arrangement. <<>>
Belew's sonic eclecticism does come to the fore occasionally on Two Kinds of Laughter especially in the latter half of the CD. On Look At It This Way, the sound is somewhat reminiscent of old Motown, with some record scratches added throughout for some unknown reason. <<>>
The rhythm goes headlong into hip-hop on Optimistic Fool, with mixed results, while Adrian Belew starts to bring out some of his sonic trademarks. <<>>
Yet another of the more unusual facets of the CD is represented on E Cosi Desio Me Mena, which is Latin for "And so desire carries me along." Ms. Hickman's electronically processed spoken vocals are immediately reminiscent of Laurie Anderson, while parts of the arrangement take on a tropical aura, with engaging results. <<>>
The album closes with the one piece not composed by Ms. Hickman, Let Go, written by Amy Tiven, which comes off as an unusual combination of an old rock & roll ballad, a lullaby and advice to someone having a hard time. <<>>
Sara Hickman's new fifth CD, Two Kinds of Laughter, is this Texas singer-songwriter's best to date. The combination of excellent, often clever songs, Ms. Hickman's exceptionally appealing vocals and Adrian Belew's eclectic production makes this a most worthwhile album, and one that certainly defies the popular notion of what a Texas singer-songwriter should write about and sound like.
Sonically, the recording gets good grades. There is some electronic processing done in the studio, but except for the pointless dubbed-in record scratches on Look At It This Way, most of the time, the production, recording and mix are first rate, and the dynamic range is not bad for a CD with a pop sound like this one.
Often times the combination of a seemingly mismatched producer and artist can have the unfortunate results one might expect, with the hugely disappointing new album by Bonnie Raitt, Fundamental, produced by Mitchell Froom, being a salient example. Sara Hickman's Two Kinds of Laughter shows that a surprising artist-producer collaboration from different parts of the musical spectrum can sometimes make for both satisfying listening and the kind of record that takes the artist to a new level.
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