Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Chris Hickey -- Razzmatazz

Chris Hickey -- Razzmatazz (Work-Fire)

Hickey’s fourth solo release is the result of a personal challenge. Hickey wrote a song every day and recorded it on a hand-held digital recorder. The 16 songs that ended up on this disc show that Hickey was up to the task.

Hickey’s music is best described as folk-pop. Generally, the basic structures of his songs adhere to folk music tenets, and that’s even more apparent on these short and sharp songs. But he has always had an ear for a strong melody, giving most of his tunes an indelible catchiness.

But what puts his music over the top are his concise and revealing lyrics and his plaintive, matter-of-fact vocals. Hickey’s range is limited, but he coaxes a lot of nuance out of his voice. Some of his songs are strictly observational, and his voice is great for conveying warmth and intelligence. When things move into more emotional territory, he can sound really vulnerable, doing so in a subtle manner. [NOTE: Since Hickey doesn't release music much, some of this is kind of a repeat of a review I wrote of his last album about six years ago or so]

Initially, this album sounds a bit fragmentary, as the songs are, understandably, pretty minimal in both the sound and arrangements. With each spin, however, more songs come into focus, and the variety of lyrical themes gives this album a distinctive character.

Two striking songs find Hickey becoming an advocate, once for a poet and once for mom-and-pop businesses. On “Keuroac”, Hickey goes Wiki, rhythmically listing details of Jack’s too short, so famous life. Each recitation of facts ends with Hickey singing, “I salute you/I am grateful.” This is affectionate and compelling.

On “Places to Go”, Hickey extols the virtues of his unnamed town, talk-singing over a bouncy strum about “shop keepers, the owners/not the greedy ones, the exploiters” but the ones who give you a place to hang out. It’s a nice sentiment, well expressed.

He also tells stories. It’s a delusional story on “Salty Tears”. Over a simple melody with minimal guitar, Hickey sings from the perspective of a guy who has found a sure thing at the track, and he explains to his wife all the great things they’ll do with the money. But Salty Tears places instead of winning, so the poor bastard rationalizes “at least it wasn’t close.”

Some songs are quite hooky, despite the spartan format. It’s hard to resist the pleasures of “Run”. The song starts with the chorus, which has a nice ebb-and-flow melody. Hickey sings with a mix of urgency and weariness, appropriate for a guy who thinks he has to bolt because “the law is banging on the door/that’s my love who’s bleeding on the floor.” The hook on “The Heat The Light” is the little melodic wrinkle which has Hickey singing near the top of his range. With the static guitar playing underneath, this quick moving up the scale is really memorable.

Another memorable track is the haunting “Nothing is Real”, a song about questioning things (“Will you still love me at 64?”, for example). Here, on the refrain, Hickey plays his guitar at a measured pace and sings accordingly, but in the verses, he moves up the scale (not being a musician, I’m not sure it’s an octave or half-octave or whatever), playing more urgently, and he sings faster to keep up. The refrain already creates tension, so to move into an even more intense part and then head back makes the tune all the more gripping.

A few songs kind of blend in, but after five spins or so, I had latched onto about half of the tracks and I’m still getting into it. Keeping things basic is no impediment for a performer who relies so much on his voice and has never been ornate. Hickey is a very special artist, who combines intellectual depth with emotional resonance and well-crafted music to accompany his lyrics. If you want something new in the folk pop vein, please check this out.

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