After a recording hiatus of several decades, Dan Hicks eased back into the studio and has emerged with his finest record. He writes songs like an inveterate people watcher carries eccentric tales from café society home to amuse his friends. He has a sly, observational, story-telling humor but can paint vivid visual landscapes and characters musically. It’s as if he has not skipped a single, solitary beat in all those intervening years. He is a singular stylist, and he is as iconoclastic as ever.
From the beginning few instants of this record, from the women singing “ka-chinka, ka-chinka, ka-chinka” drifting into jazzy guitar and gypsy violin into Dan’s opening line, “First gun I ever seen, it was down the barrel”, you know he’s back. One of the oldies recreated here is “I Scare Myself”, which created its own unique space as the psychological thriller of love songs.
Here is Dan’s paean to the guy who sounds like he’s smoked a whole Thai stick every single day of his life for the last 35 years to prove that pot’s good for you, “He Don’t Care”. He’s just floats in his own fuzzy pink brain. “He don’t care how the country looks, he don’t care about readin’ and books.” What a state to be in, but the hero of the song regards himself as a colorful and interesting type. Even though he doesn’t actually think, say, or do anything, at least he’s got a different colored headband for every single day of the week. Some people seem to get stuck on that style, like the stylus in the worn down record groove that clicks forever on. The chorus is sung in a low, flattened affect monotone, sounds like it’s too much of an effort to barely mumble the words out.
In the beginning of the San Francisco rock palace era, Dan Hicks is a one of a kind who blossomed during the period, a real high-minded maverick who blended his unique humor with gypsy jazz, “Le Jazz Hot”, music-hall, cowboy swing, and elements of the Andrews Sisters. His easy acoustic stylings and clever songwriting were a welcome change from the blasting free-form jams of the time. In the early ‘70s, he attained most popularity, gracing the cover of the Rolling Stone no less than three times. His music was intelligent and humorous, emotionally a relief from the fierce political furor of the early ‘70s. His music then and now is a refreshing breath of fresh air.
If there is a singer/songwriter alive today who can breathe life into those undrawn cartoons you have strolling about inside your own head, Dan Hicks is he. Aside from the old-timers who looked on Dan as one of their own even before he began singing about “Canned Music”, he’ll now find an audience any where there are smart people or musical looneys. He may finally achieve a bit more widespread recognition if some of the devotees of his fans appearing on this record decide to branch out—Bette Midler, Rickie Lee Jones, Tom Waits, and Elvis Costello each make an appearance here. He may not have it made in the shade just yet, but Dan Hicks is still beatin’ the heat.
// Notes from the Road
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