Monday, June 18, 2012

Johnny Hickman - Tilting - Buy It, Don't Steal It!

"I love writing songs in all capacities....throwing Lowery riffs that he builds a song around or writes words to my melodies, writing entire Cracker or solo songs on my own, all good. It's a little frustrating sometimes because understandably, people first regard me as just the lead guitarist when in truth I co-wrote the bulk of the Cracker canon with David Lowery, including every radio hit. Keith Richard, Mike Campbell, Joe Perry....we all get pigeonholed that way. Goes with the guitar-slinger territory." Johnny Hickman on being not 'just' a lead guitarist.

Tilting is Johnny Hickman's second solo sojourn, a trip that sees the veteran songsmith/guitarist/singer weaving in and out of a wide variety of styles without ever forgetting where his roots lie. Recorded in Colorado with producer/engineer/multi-instrumentalist Jason Larson, the record is most definitely a modern affair - largely funded by friends, family, and fans via a very successful Kickstarter campaign, only to be instantly pirated by wretched download sites who somehow managed to get their hands on a promo copy. It is the best of times, it is the worst of times, it appears.

If you find yourself thinking that this disc harkens back to the genre jumping employed so successfully by the mid-period Beatles, you're not mistaken. Mind you, there's more than enough Cracker soul to keep his core constituency smiling (such as the album's excellent opening track, Measure of a Man), but there's also a smoky, sophisticated trip to French bistro music on the 'keep the home fires burning' Papa Johnny's Arms, which features a beautiful jazzy chord progression, a lovely Django-esque guitar solo, and some clever and warm wordplay.

Dream Along With Me is a piano based mid-tempo burst of '70s melodicism that evokes fond memories of Eric Carmen, The Raspberries, and even Paul's Wings - not what one might expect, but a delightful surprise, especially the angelic background vocals, and a guitar solo that surely has the mystic George smiling from above. Then there's a slab of pop entitled Sick Cynthia Thing that sits comfortably somewhere between Elvis Costello, Guided By Voices, and The Sweet. We're talking seriously eclectic stuff here, but it works in a way that only a seriously skilled writer could pull off. Someone who's listened to as many great records as he's made.
“I sometimes feel like the impassioned madman with his lance trying to slay the windmill monsters,” Johnny reveals. “I think a lot of people do in these troubled times. The idea of battling these mighty, unbeatable foes both real and imagined is disturbing yet darkly amusing to me.”

He continues, “The songs on Tilting are definitely more personal, more autobiographical than on either Palmhenge or Cracker records. I didn’t set out to do that but it’s just where I am in life I suppose. I didn’t steer cautiously around any of my feelings or experiences, good or bad. It’s as honest as hell, I can tell you that. Lyrically, there’s a little mid-life crisis catharsis going on here, not that that’s a bad thing. That and just being pissed off and reveling in it. I also love collaborating, which I do with David as well as my long time friend Chris LeRoy. Two of the twelve songs on Tilting were written by or with Chris, though the majority of these songs are directly from my head and heart.”
Not Enough is a pissed off picture of what this country is going through, but even as he's taking those who see no problem in the way our nation is behaving to task, Hickman makes it sound like we'll be just fine. His witty lyrics never pander to the those who would give up without a fight, or to those who would call for in the streets revolution. No, there's a sense of staying the course and being a man, taking it as it comes and making it all work out. Maybe even more than the tasty melodicisms and the cooler than cool arrangements, what I like about this record is that like The Who, The Kinks, and The Beatles, this guy is not gonna quit, and he's never going to whine. Stick with him, watch what he does, follow hid lead, and you'll be fine, too.

Hickman's voice is exceptionally strong throughout the album, whether it's standing nakedly by itself on the barroom lament, Drunkard's Epiphany, or shouting over the power pop/punk of Takin' Me Back. Of the great '90s rock and roll sergeant-at-arms (Mike Campbell, Peter Buck, and Doug Gillard come to mind), Hickman is the first to stand tall and produce a solo album strong enough to stand alongside his day job's finest. Any song on this disc would sit proudly smack dab in the middle of a Cracker album, the same thing that I said about David Lowery's outstanding 2011 solo outing, The Palace Guards.

World weariness occasionally appears, as it will when the times sees one losing friends to the psychic wars, and the ravages of an industry that left town. Whittled Down is a tale of the rigors of the road, but I'm also hearing the somber souls of Vic Chesnutt and Mark Linkous looking down on Lonesome Johnny from some celestial tavern. This is a new form of the working class hero - he's the guy left behind to pick up the pieces and keep on moving. Hickman honors his friends living and dead, his bandmates, and his family with his deep vein of dignity and integrity. His is the job of the living and the leaders - the survivors. And he's doing a damned fine job.

I had the pleasure of hanging out and talking with author Joe Klein (Primary Colors) and legendary guitarist Ry Cooder the other night - we talked of music, politics, and the state of the nation. Ry seemed a little pissed, and somewhat concerned that I had already heard the whole of his new record, which is still months from its release date (I assured him I had heard it through legitimate means). Klein listened intently as the working class of Dayton. Ohio told him their take on America. As I listen to this record that Johnny Hickman has just made, read the impassioned words of Hickman's partner in Cracker David Lowery as he attempts to steer the music industry and its customers into sensible waters, and recall the conversations with Klein and Cooder, my level of anxiety and angst about this old world finds itself easing down a bit. It's artists like these who remind us of not just who they are, but who we are - and in a damned fine, entertaining fashion. It tenders and engenders hope, and it gives strength.

Another Road brings the album to a finish, and it does so in the finest of fashions. Its staccato, tremolo'd guitar intro reminds me that rock is the voice of reason - one of power, redemption, and salvation. It reminds me of The Who at the height of their powers, when Townshend's anger unleashed itself in the only way that makes sense - with loud rock and roll guitars, and a song that makes one wish to move forward, and upward.

Tilting is a damned fine record. There are many other great songs and moments on this platter that I haven't mentioned, but I will allow you to discover them for yourselves. Hickman has set the bar high and hurdled above and beyond it. Now, you can do me a favor. Buy this album - don't steal it. Pay the artist, for without the artist, nobody else gets paid, in fact, nobody else in the music business has a job without the artist. And go out and see Cracker this summer as they tour America with Barenaked Ladies, Blues Traveller, and Big Head Todd and The Monsters, as part of The Last Summer On Earth 2012 Tour.

 Finally, I'll leave you with Hickman's words of wisdom:
“Personally, all my favorite records and bands have been those that don’t flatline into one tiny sub-genre (Beatles, Kinks, Radiohead, Petty, Neil Young…). When I write, I just do it and don’t worry about it. As David [Lowery] and I always say, the only real rule in music is ‘don’t suck.’”
Tilting release date - July 3, 2012

Great thanks to Johnny Hickman, Jason Larson, and the ever helpful Tony Bonyata at Pavement PR. 

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