Chris Hickey,
(Work-Fire, 2009)

Chris Hickey is a longtime Los Angeles-based singer-songwriter who has likely passed across the radar of folk fans of the past 25 years (albeit as a brief, interesting, anonymous blip).

A member of L.A. punk-pop band The Spoilers in the late 1970s, he self-released two well-regarded solo folk albums in the mid-'80s -- Frames of Mind, Boundaries of Time and Looking for Anything -- which garnered heavy college-radio airplay and caught the attention of Tracy Chapman's producer, David Kershenbaum, who chose to follow up his work on Chapman's Grammy-winning debut by producing the self-titled debut album of Hickey's neo-Peter, Paul & Mary group Show of Hands in 1988. During the '90s, Hickey fronted the folk-rock band Uma, which featured Sally Dworsky, herself a respected solo performer and regular on Garrison Keillor's Prairie Home Companion. That band left the fine album Fare Well as a document of their too-brief time together. Razzmatazz comes five years after Hickey's return to solo recording, 2003's Release.

Consider the above not just a history but a buying guide; any and all of Hickey's previous recordings present listeners with a wealth of impactful yet understated songwriting balanced with sparsely beautiful instrumental accompaniment. Even in a band setting, Hickey is not one to waste a note or let any kind of studio noodling interfere with the force of his words. And increasingly throughout his career, he has devoted the power of his words not to the big idea but to the expansive poignancy of the small things. In his attention to the emotional impact of the little details -- a nail sticking up from the otherwise smooth surface of a kitchen table, an accidental flash of a view from a windblown window shade, the silent service of love that is taking out the garbage each evening -- he calls to mind the early work of the Nicholson Baker, who could craft a novel out of a bored businessman's escalator ride.

Razzmatazz was the title Alan Ginsberg suggested to Bob Dylan for the album that became Planet Waves. In a recent interview, Dylan expressed his regret at not having taken Ginsberg's advice; Hickey, a longtime student of the Beat Generation, takes on the title himself for this very Beat-inspired exercise in record-making. You see, this album of 16 songs was written and recorded as part of a month-long song-a-day project. As such, the album both succeeds and suffers in accordance with the plan of its conception.

Because of Hickey's long-established proclivity for sparse arrangements and precise lyrical observations, the album succeeds in most of its songs. Nothing sounds half-baked here. With no song even threatening to approach a full three minutes, this might just be the quietest punk album of the year; really, some of these songs make the Ramones seem long-winded. But that's a function of the skill Hickey brings to the songwriting table. "Salty Tears" lasts all of 97 seconds, yet captures the depths of hope and despair at the heart of planning a first trip away without the kids, all the promise for a return to long-ago passions counterbalanced by anxiety of whether such a thing is even attainable after so much time and attention to other priorities. The two-minute long "Man is Rich" becomes a mantra of the simple truth: "Man is rich whose needs are few." In "Only Way Track," Hickey masterfully sums up the trap so many fall into, wanting what they don't have while not appreciating what they do possess and thereby missing out on really living their life: "Always over there / Never really here." The longest track is a stream-of-consciousness tribute to one of Hickey's favorite writers, "Kerouac." Still only two-and-a-half minutes, Hickey manages to capture both the essence of a life and the impact that life had on so many others. This is an album that passes quickly but lasts long.

Despite his flirtations with mainstream success, Hickey has always been an outsider in the music industry and he remains an argument for just why the industry needs outsiders to keep itself honest and vibrant. In typical outsider fashion, Hickey is making this album available beyond the usual bounds of the marketing machine. The album is available as a download for $5 dollars from or as a physical copy with accompanying artwork via mail order from the website for $10 dollars. The download is a bargain in the face of our cardboard consumer culture, offering more value than an alleged value meal or foot-long ptomaine sandwich.

Really, the next time you're at a bank machine and the screen asks you to approve the service charge for accessing your own money free of any human interaction or inconvenience on the part of anyone save yourself, here's what I want you to do: tell the machine no thanks (I'd suggest telling the machine something more forceful, but they don't have a button for that), go home and use the money that you were about to spend on nothing to download this album. You will be striking a quiet blow for art, independence and lasting joy.

[ visit the artist's website ]

review by
Edward Whitelock

22 August 2009

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