Sara Hickman is a member of a large and growing club: an under-appreciated musician with a solid back catalog of interesting and adventurous CDs, who garners critical kudos in inverse relation to record sales. (FYI: Aimee Mann remains the president of this club.) Worse still, she belongs to the majority-group in this club: earnest, smart folkies who can knock out fairly substantial pop songs. The problem that everyone in this club faces is how to distinguish themselves from the crowd. Tracy Chapman’s got that voice, Loudon Wainwright has that wry way of looking at things, Sara Hickman has… ah, so that’s the problem…
As earnest folk albums go, Spiritual Appliances is a little too earnest for my tastes. The CD booklet is filled with life-affirming slogans, inspirational quotations (from the writer Jeanette Winterson and Mother Teresa), a note to contact an organization that helps the homeless—that kind of thing. I guess there’s nothing wrong with that. Hickman takes our emotions to be the “spiritual appliances” referred to in the title, and each of the thirteen tracks on the album explore one emotion in particular (love on “Edward,” anger on “Everything’s Red,” and so on). Put it all together, and even before giving the disk a spin, I got the sense that I’d be using the words “touchy-feely” a lot in this review.
Still, the proof’s in the music. Spiritual Appliances gets off to a shaky start on the cloying sweetness of “Standing Ground” and “Life.” Things begin to pick up with the sultry “Kerosene” (lust) which shows ro good effect the considerable range of Hickman’s supple, beautiful voice. The gentle “I Wish I Could Run” (denial) has Joan Armatrading pacing and a Karen Carpenter chorus. It’s a combination that might have sounded chaotic, but it’s held together by a nicely understated orchestration of brass and strings. Over sitar and jangling guitar, “Moment of Grace” (mercy) builds in emotion and power over the course of its seven plus minutes. But while there’s much to praise here, it also seems, in the end, somewhat unmemorable. Which is why I suspect that Sara Hickman will be stuck in that accursed realm of high-praise low-pay for some time to come.