[21 July 2013]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
Sara Hickman might just be the most famous musician you’ve never heard of. She’s been named the Official State Musician of Texas in 2010, preceded by Willie Nelson and followed by Lyle Lovett, which is pretty celebrated company to keep. She’s also been named by Performing Songwriter as one of the “100 Most Influential Independent Artists”. Her songs have been covered by the likes of Nelson (the Red Headed Stranger himself, and not the ‘90s hair pop band), Shawn Colvin, Rhett Miller, and Edie Brickell and the New Bohemians. She’s had an adult contemporary hit (“I Couldn’t Help Myself”), hosted her own VH-1 special and been a guest on The Tonight Show twice. What’s more, Hickman is a noted philanthropist, having raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for various initiatives in Texas and elsewhere. The city of Austin has twice celebrated Sara Hickman Day in 1996 and 2009 not only for her contributions to music, but for her community involvement. So, Sara Hickman comes with a rather impressive résumé for her latest LP, Shine. What’s more, she seems like a rather nice person: the kind of gal you wouldn’t mind sharing a cup of coffee with – at least in her less caustic moments. Unfortunately, that niceness, at least on Shine, seems superficial and fleeting. “Nice” is the best superlative I can throw at the album, bearing in mind that I once had an elementary school teacher who chided my class for the overuse of the word in their creative writing assignments.
Shine is interesting insofar as it offers a rather broad reach in terms of themes. It starts out sunny and happy, turns resolutely gloomy, before ending on a hopeful and optimistic note. Had every song been like “Tasty Sweet”, the opening cut on Shine, you might be filling Hickman under the rather twee, bubblegum pop category. Sounding like a contemporary Andy Kim, the Canadian songwriter who co-wrote the Archies’ biggest hit, “Sugar, Sugar”, “Tasty Sweet” is a uproarious piece of adult contemporary pop that is ... nice. “You’re the kind of boy I’d love to eat / Ice cream and honey.” This goes down as particularly gooey, until, at least, you get to the following rather naughty lyric: “Do me all over / Over and over.” Still, it’s a rather pleasant piece of songcraft, and you’re left hopeful that the rest of the album will follow in the same path. But, no. Follow-up song “Selfish Freak”, while being similarly punchy and a little jazzy, is a little more ... pointed. “You’re just another selfish freak ... / You’re just another blah blah blah blah blah (repeat blahs ad nauseum) / All about you / All about, all about your selfish freak.” So Hickman’s relationships go from cavity inducing to something less than ideal.
From there, the record takes a particularly morbid turn. “Trouble with Boxes” is about ... death. “The trouble with wood / Is people praying outside / The trouble with wood is / The body inside.” In three songs, Hickman’s mood has gone from absolutely chipper to ultimately somber, and the juxtaposition is rather startling, giving the album a feel of being oddly sequenced. And, from there, the mid-portion of the record is rather ordinary. “Human Wish” is the kind of fey acoustic-guitar ballad that singer-songwriters like Colvin have mined to death. It’s ... uh ... nice. The countrified “You Are Not Alone” is the kind of thing that is targeted towards those in need that she’s helped out in the past. “I know what it means to be sad / I know what it means to feel lonely / I know what it means to feel like you’re the only one / Who knows what it means to know?” sings Hickman. It’s ultimately uplifting, and a balm from the dark feelings Hickman expressed earlier, but it feels, well, you know. And then things get poppier again: “My Cocky Friend” is filled with all sorts of garish keyboard-based percussion, before it turns into a rather standard country-rock number that mines the same territory as “Selfish Freak”, one with “Tasty Sweet” overtones: “Get me a cigarette / Get me a drink / You know where this is going / Exactly where you think / Just get me started / Give me all you have / And when you’re finished / Get me a cab / I just want to get it / I just want to get it on.” I guess Hickman has complex feelings about her relationships. They’re pretty all over the map.
Shine is a giddy collection of songs, but therein lies the biggest problem with the LP: it feels like a collection. According to the press release, this 10-song album “blossomed” out of poems and various visions. It shows. The songs veer all over the place: the rambunctious, almost Dixie Chicks-esque “Primitive Stuff” veers uneasily into plaintive piano ballad “Rapture”, which is, gah!, nice but doesn’t really stick owing to the fact that it’s only slightly more than two minutes long, and the title track, which closes the record, doesn’t seem like an album ender: it really should have been moved up top with the happier material, and seems stitched into the disc as a means to finish things on an upbeat note. Still, for those with a disposition towards soft, adult contemporary music will probably like Shine for its earnest songwriting and ultimately hopeful mood. Shine might not make Sara Hickman a household name, which her CV would impress upon you, but, for a certain audience, it’s an alright album of tunefully catchy and somewhat experimental material. That’s what’s disappointing about Shine: it could have made Hickman a name, but she seems content to just be a middling songwriter with a bunch of impressive achievements to fall back one, and a reputation for being a nice (there’s that word again) person who appears to sincerely care about the wellbeing of others less fortunate than her. Yes, Sara Hickman appears to be a decent person, though one with conflicting moods. The same can be said about Shine. And, alas, nothing much more.