Editor’s note: Our Tall Tales contributor, Mark Stevens, is the author of “Antler Dust” and “Buried by the Roan.” “Buried by the Roan” is a finalist for the 2012 Colorado Book Award. Both books are on the shelves at Telluride’s own Between the Covers Bookstore, 224 West Colorado Ave, Box 2129.
Johnny Hickman—highly literate singer, songwriter and guitarist with the venerable band “Cracker”—released a new record this month and if you’ve ever done battle with a windmill, you’ll relate.
Born from the ashes of Camper Van Beethoven, who put the “alt” in alternative, “Cracker” emerged in 1992 with a resounding whomp. Twenty years later, “Cracker” remains a more straight-ahead rock outfit that isn’t afraid of a tasty hook or a power chord, although every album has its tender bits and quieter moments.
The Cracker hits like “Teen Angst” and “Low” garnered attention and radio play, but I think the fans who form Crumb Nation—who are legion in Colorado—dig the variety most of all.
The David Lowery-Johnny Hickman songwriting team has put out seven classic albums, each release containing a mix of sonic rockers, straight-up country, heartfelt ballads and mid-tempo contemplations.
Dependably, the songs contain quirky references and offbeat images—carrot juice, faux Cadillacs, orange crepe paper, fecund swamps, hydroponic farms, vapor trails, fallen debutantes, Sacagewea, Frank Sinatra, Nantucket, the Catskills, Masul, Fresno and Phoenix—words (mostly) by the witty and cynical-smart David Lowery, killer guitar by Johnny Hickman.
It’s an overall and distinct Cracker sound that’s due primarily to Lowery’s wise lyrics and droll delivery. Lowery fronts the band like an anti-rocker, no posing aloud, while Johnny puts his boot up on the monitor and squeezes a lead out of his well-decorated Les Paul. You nod knowingly to Lowery’s surly, biting insights, doodle your air guitar to Hickman’s sweet work on the fretboard.
Lowery offers a bemused, cynical gaze as if he’s not really there, while Hickman is over on stage right smiling and laughing like he’ll play all night. Lowery sings 90 percent of the time while Johnny gets the occasional nod to do “Lonesome Johnny Blues” or “Another Song about the Rain” or “Mr. Wrong.” Sometimes, Johnny covers Dylan’s “The Man in Me,” which fits his style and ethos perfectly.
When Johnny dropped his first solo disc Palmhenge in 2005, it was a songwriting revelation and remains one of my favorite discs to this day—a mix of rock, country, and some genuine singer-songwriter stuff with heavy themes and a solid undertow. “Little Tom” is the best song Paul Simon never wrote. “Lucky” should be a national anthem. The album wasn’t Johnny Hickman’s version of Cracker, it was Johnny front and center, doing his thing. The quirky-lyric factor was low, the storytelling high.
And now, seven years later, after Johnny adopted Colorado as his new home, comes Tilting. And the same sober-eyed view of the world and more ample evidence that Johnny Hickman is his own songwriting force, albeit with no buried messages, embedded code or wisps of puzzling poetry.
The disc opens with plain-and-simple Johnny, voice first and then a simple strum of guitar: “Well, you wash your hands of all the common people, at the end of another working day…” The song is “Measure of A Man,” one of many instantly hummable tracks.
Tilting is more straight-up songwriting across a number of styles and sound spectrums—rockers like “Takin Me Back” against whistling-down-the street numbers like “Destiny Misspent.” I swear I hear the echoes of Sir Paul McCartney in the beginning of “Dream Along with Me” and there’s the jazzy-bouncy “Papa Johnny’s Arms” or the melodic “Not Enough.”
Tilting bounces just fine all over the place, unafraid—and that’s about the only thing that’s similar to the genre-on-puree approach of the best Cracker discs like, say, “Gentlemen’s Blues.” Like Palmhenge, the underlying vibe of Tilting is a singer mystified by what we’ve done to ourselves, what kind of world we’re putting together, and if we are going to accept things the way they are. Johnny Hickman doesn’t want you guessing at how he feels—his lyrics are straight-up and clear-eyed. “Another road, where maybe I can see, a better way to go,” he sings on the last track that is half rocker, half mood piece, “Another Road.”
Spare and clean are the orders of the day. Nothing threatens to get out of control except for maybe “Takin Me Back,” the ninth track, but calm is restored immediately with an acoustic guitar on the haunting “Resurrection Train.” That’s followed by the waltzy “Drunkard’s Epiphany,” which could be a good bookend to The Replacements‘ “Here Comes A Regular.” (Love those opening party noises before the tune kicks in so casually.)
The windmill imagery and Tilting reference, of course, invoke Don Quixote, who saw “thirty or forty windmills” rising from the plain.” Don Quixote sees the windmills as “hulking giants” and he intends to slay them. Sancho Panza sees only windmills and asks, “what giants?” and Quixote replies: “Those you see over there…with their long arms. Some of them have arms well nigh two leagues in length.”
The windmill imagery means something entirely different than it did 400 years ago, when Cervantes was writing. Now, in fact, the windmills do have arms well nigh two leagues in length.
I suppose we all tilt at our own hulking giants. Sometimes we succeed, sometimes we fail. It’s evident from this new record that Johnny Hickman sees them for what they are. Johnny Hickman hasn’t needed a lifetime to distinguish between reality and the pictures in his head. He’s a thoughtful songwriter and terrific guitar player who just tells it like it is, word by word, note by note.