No Rock Stars Need Apply
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.
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.
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