No Rock Stars Need Apply

A Hangdog Comeback From the "Other" Dylan

Declaration of bias: I once walked into a Dylan Hicks concert minutes after breaking up with the love of my life and imprinted on the poor sucker's music like a newborn chick. I suppose it could have been anybody playing in that campus banana bar in Madison, Wisconsin. And I suppose I was drunk: The singer's business pal Kim Randall, who recognized me and asked what was wrong, saw to that. But Hicks was good, and he was there

for me. His legato-Mick Jagger turn was tender, his band's Stax chops sure. He even played "Rocketship," his lullaby for the dumped, which has a forlorn narrator begging for a clean break (a one-way ticket to the moon, say) before simply asking to be let off at the next stop: "The corner would be okay, right by the Holiday/And then I'll get a snack." Heartbreak's rough, but hey, the stomach wants what it wants.

Speaking from the sober distance of a few years, I can safely say that I still admire any songwriter who pauses from masochistic fantasies about romantic rejection to have, as Jeff Spicoli would say, a little feast on our time. Hicks has a knack for inserting humor into the most depressed of pop scenarios--or depression into the funniest. Take his new, third CD, Alive With Pleasure (No Alternative), which happens to lift its title from a Newport slogan. The upbeat "All the Rock Star Jobs Are Taken" recasts the singer-
keyboardist as a bass player in a wedding band, adding four years to the songwriter's actual age of 30. But the tune's half-rationalizing/half-relieved celebration of domestic contentment in lieu of fame ("Nothing rings in my head/When I climb into bed/And kiss my sweet baby goodnight") might cut close for any struggling local "pop" musician.

All the rock-star jobs are taken: Dylan Hicks
Courtesy of Dylan Hicks
All the rock-star jobs are taken: Dylan Hicks

Hicks included. His recent, ironically modest press release left out artistic achievements, an appearance on the cover of the Twin Cities Reader, and a $10,000 video for the song "City Lights" (funded entirely by its director) to craft this succinct career capsule: "Hicks signed with No Alternative in 1995, when he was but a small club attraction in the Twin Cities. Since then he has released two albums on the No Alternative imprint and is now a small club attraction in the Twin Cities."


When I interview the self-dubbed Governor of Fun in his Uptown apartment one November evening, he is covering a puddle of canine puke with a newspaper--"It's my wife's dog," he explains. The love of his life is busy feeding their button of a seven-month-old son. The pooch rests nearby, breathing easier.

Hicks, as you might guess, has dedicated the new album to his household--the son and wife, not the dog. He says he wrote all the songs during a happy period in his life. Still, he admits he drew on a certain wistfulness when imagining his fictional wedding bassist. "I did harbor the fantasy that I would be a rock star for a while, which to me meant being [singer-songwriter] Marshall Crenshaw," he says. "It was a modest fantasy, but I didn't want to torture myself with it. So
finally I had to sort of let go." (To this end, Hicks has been finishing off his long-in-the-works U of M degree, perhaps toward applying for law school.) He says that the track "Playing With the Boys in Willie's Band" is similarly inspired by real-life pangs--in this case the envy wrought by sharing a rhythm section with the high-living Willie Wisely.

Autobiographical material is the exception here, however. Alive With Pleasure is told mainly via Randy Newman-like narrators--not necessarily likable or reliable alter egos--who variously obsess over free women, lust after soused college boys, and fulfill the promise of a song title like "I Wanna Be Black Sometimes." (That last tune is a cheap shot at hip-hop suburbia, redeemed only by a perfect chorus and the rollicking guitar licks of Terry Eason.)

"City Lights," meanwhile, is a terse goodbye note from chicken to chickenhawk. To get the disco-beatscape feel he wanted, Hicks enlisted Minneapolis house producer Jason Heinrichs to buoy the singer's smoothest coo yet. The result is a cold yet breezy kiss-off to an older man: "You're so much weaker than me/You fall apart too easily/At a sad song on TV/In a sitcom."

Okay, I plead guilty to that charge, too. And I need a snack.