[22 March 2009]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
“Fly, sly, wily, and dry!”
Dan Hicks is a man and musician who’s spent the last 40 years defying classification. He and his band the Hot Licks bring a little blues and a little country, a dash of jazz and a bit of bluegrass, all sewn up in some swing to its sound. Of course, there’s always plenty of Hicks’s singular lyrical prowess. With a dry wit and sharp turn of phrase, his rhymes are unusual and often unpredictable, his delivery is delightful, and his timing is impeccable.
Dan Hicks and the Hot Licks have a long history of collaborating with fans and fellow artists like Willie Nelson, Jimmy Buffett, Van Dyke Parks, Tom Waits, Gibby Haynes, Elvis Costello, Brian Setzer, and Rickie Lee Jones, among countless others. The latest release, Tangled Tales, continues that tradition by featuring the talents of David Grisman, Charlie Musselwhite, Roy Rogers, and Grammy-winning producer Chris Goldsmith (Blind Boys of Alabama, Ben Harper).
Tangled Tales also continues Hicks’s tradition of making each and every tune unmistakably his own. Nine new original tracks feature signature elements like high fiddle and finger picking, or charming, old-timey female harmony vocals and western swing-style rhythms. “The Diplomat” and the title track are perfect and complete examples of all these things, in fact. “Tangled Tales” additionally has a lively, irresistible scat vocal.
So many of these tracks have the toe-tapping rhythm that is the most obvious mark of Hicks’s style that you might think all 12 songs are his compositions. Three of them, however, are covers. That’s where the undeniable originality of Dan Hicks becomes the most apparent. Of the covers, it’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues” that is truly amazing. Not only does Hicks do a bang-up job with it, but he somehow manages to take such a well-known and iconically “Dylan” tune and turn it into something entirely fresh and totally Dan Hicks (just listen to those guitar licks!).
Hicks can also nail the sweeter side of song craft. “Savin’ My Lovin’” is a captivatingly romantic little ditty, and “Song for My Father” is a beautifully sentimental ode that oozes an exotic, noir atmosphere not unlike a film score. I’m sure the senior Mr. Hicks would have loved it. “Let It Simmer”, the closing track, also has a vibe like something from a classic film. It’s a lazy swaying, slowly swinging nightcap, highlighted by soft brush strokes and a tinkling piano. In the lyric, Hicks tells us what might be his personal motto:
Let it simmer, cook it slow
No use boiling just let it go
Don’t get hot, it’s a simple rule
Just cool off, lay by the pool
Take it easy, it’s all right
Just for today and for tonight
Keep it mellow, keep it light
It’s sound advice, for sure. Even though it ends on a mellower note, for most of the album Dan Hicks and the Hot Licks are daring you not to jump up and dance while you listen to Tangled Tales, and let me tell you, it’s absolutely impossible to stay still.