“Constraints are important,” says Dylan Hicks, mashing down the imaginary buttons on the touchscreen of a digital jukebox at the Triple Rock Social Club.
This late-model jukebox, unfortunately, offers a lesson in what happens when constraints are tossed out the window. The TouchTunes “interactive entertainment platform”—65,000 of which are located across the U.S.—can summon most any song you can think of. This can lead to what MBA programs call “analysis paralysis,” or at least a strong bout of self-consciousness.
Hicks is lanky and laconic in a natty collegiate sweater, with longish salt-and-pepper hair hanging over his glasses, but this unstructured universe of infinite choices leaves him a touch flustered. “When there’s a hundred selections or so, you have something to work with. You’re asking, how do I want to present myself? You want to make the best decision...”
“Right,” I offer. “Within a framework.”
“Yeah,” he says. “With this, you can just play anything.”
There’s a knack to selecting tunes on a traditional jukebox, and “A-24,” the lead single from Hicks’ new album, Ad Out, is a valentine to mastering that art. “It’s the best damn jukebox in the county,” Hicks sings in a High Plains drawl. “Got about 1,000 songs so you don’t get bored.”
Since Hicks is not only a terrific lyricist but also a great writer about music (he was City Pages’ arts editor a little more than a decade ago), I figured it’d be fun to drag him out to a real-life jukebox and get him to punch in a few songs and talk about them.
TRACK 1: “Clean Up Woman,” Betty Wright (2 credits)
To narrow our choices, Hicks selects the “Queens of R&B” category, where one of his favorites, Betty Wright’s 1971 hit “Clean Up Woman,” is, through some divine algorithmic intervention, the first song listed. Hicks mashes down a PLAY button that’s as unresponsive as the keys on the crappy ATMs often found at bars, and soon Wright is warning everyone at the T-Rock about the clean-up woman who stole her man’s love.
“I love a song with a conceit,” Hicks says. “Not every time, but if you can come up with a premise, you can try to enrich that.” And the characters on Ad Out—guys in bars, lovelorn dudes working menial jobs, boyfriends or husbands who may or may not know how good they have it—are often narrating their way through such conceits. When a sad sack charged with a moving violation testifies in court on “Asking for a Friend,” he rhymes “father’s charcoal suit” with “what the English call the boot,” in a manner that’s true to his ironic, deflated sense of his own refinement.
“They’re beleaguered,” Hicks says of his narrators. “But not defeated.” The cover of Ad Out, appropriately, features a painting of John McEnroe, facedown in the clay at Wimbledon, toward the end of the worst day of his career.
TRACK 2: “Cruisin’,” Smokey Robinson (2 credits)
Hicks enters “CRUIS” into the search bar and Smokey Robinson’s 1979 hit is summoned before he can hit the “IN.” “It’s such a seductive song,” Hicks says. “It builds nicely, and it’s dramatic, but there’s no histrionics. And those high notes.” Smokey gets his face on the TouchTunes screen, but Hicks points out that Marv Taplin, the guitarist on the record, may deserve equal billing. “This is my favorite,” he says, as Taplin’s guitar glides beneath Smokey’s croon. “That guitar tone.”
We get back to the idea of constraints. “That’s why I like rhymes,” he says. “I like the sound of them, but when you use them well, they create meaning—the rhyme scheme influences the verse. When you throw out rhymes”—here he shrugs—“you might as well be dealing with prose.”
And Hicks knows prose. After a ’90s stint as a witty singer-songwriter, he went on a hiatus from music and embarked on a writing career, first as a critic and journalist, then as the author of two well-received novels.
“I had a long break from performing,” he says. “But after a few years, I have a better sense for my voice. I have better pitch, and I know precisely my range. I didn’t know then, but I know now: two octaves, a modest baritone range.”
On Ad Out, Hicks turns what he calls his “limited vocal range” into a superpower. His voice has a conversational quality that allows him to comfortably inhabit each of his characters. In the way his TouchTunes selections cut through the din of the Triple Rock, Hicks floats over Adam Levy’s ’70s R&B-flavored licks, Joe Savage’s pedal steel, Doug Little’s horn arrangements, and his own keyboard, all of which are tidied up and made AM-ready by producer John Munson.
Hicks describes the sound as “roadhouse cabaret,” but his mix of R&B, country rock, and piano balladry would sound equally at home anywhere the sonic boundaries of the American songbook might unexpectedly bleed together: a backyard barbecue in Tin Pan Alley, or a secret honky-tonk in the basement of Radio City Music Hall.
TRACK 3: “Slow Hand,” Conway Twitty (2 credits)
We’ve gone as far as our three dollars will take us, and Conway Twitty’s up last. His gender-inverted 1980 cover of the Pointer Sisters song operates at the border of cosmopolitan country-pop and adult contemporary R&B.
Hicks points to Twitty as an example of a singer whose vocal range changed over the course of his career, to positive effect. He started out as a country yelper whose voice jumped effortlessly into the higher registers, but by the time of “Slow Hand,” he’d settled into a mellifluous, vaguely seedy baritone croon that suited the spirit Nashville’s mellifluous, vaguely seedy era of sexual liberation.
“I can’t touch these guys as singers,” he says. “But I hope the songs reflect the influence of these types of country and R&B songs in a way that seems manageable, and in a way that lets me sing like myself.” He grins a crooked grin, and clarifies: “Not loud.”
Perhaps the most countrified song on the record (“I threw in a little Southern accent on that one”), “A-24” is assertive, but all in fun, the aural equivalent of Hicks’ full-bodied dance in Wilson Webb and Carolyn Swiszcz’s video. (Hicks bops through a cardboard wonderland in white pants and a blue T-shirt, reminding me of what Jack Handey called his “funny cowboy dance” in the “Deep Thoughts” segments on SNL.) It’s a song about stepping out into the commons and staking a claim.
“You do all this stuff,” Hicks says, talking about performing music and also the act of publicly displaying your taste on a jukebox. “Even if you feel ashamed, there’s some vanity that wants to affirmed. It’s still kind of embarrassing.”
Hicks continues glancing through the options. “Oh! I love this one.” He mashes down some imaginary key a few times, and the Weeknd’s “Can’t Feel My Face” kicks in.
On the right night, in the right bar, this song too could be A-24.
Dylan Hicks & the Looming Crisis
With: Molly Maher & Her Disbelievers
When: 8 p.m. Fri. Oct. 27
Where: Hook and Ladder Theater & Lounge
Tickets: $12/$15; more info here