Out Here

Sara Hickman

No doubt about it: Getting dropped from Elektra way back when was the best thing that ever happened to Sara Hickman. If ever anyone doubted that signing to a major label can corrupt even the most well-meaning among us, listen only to the album and a half Hickman recorded on Elektra's dime; who can resist adding layer upon layer when someone else is, ha ha ha, footing the bill? Sara Hickman just ain't built to handle so many add-ons (guitar upon guitar, for starters), if only because hers is a more fragile frame equipped to make the most out of the very least -- a guitar here, an angelic teardrop there, but silence everywhere most of all. There is a reason why her 1988 debut Equal Scary People remains a timeless, beguiling little gem, one worth polishing off every now and then: because every note, every word, every breath sounds as though it exists only for the listener. Should have titled it Equal Scary Person.

Newborn is, in its own way, a similarly charming sort of disc -- perhaps because it's intended to be purchased only by parents of small children, parents "who have trepidation about singing to their newborns." Translation: It's not to be included among her more substantive releases, among them last year's return-to-form Two Kinds of Laughter; after all, it's hard to take too seriously a record featuring a song called "Goop's In It," made up on the spot when Hickman noticed her daughter Lily's first, gads, "eye booger" (Hickman's words, in the liner notes). And, as Hickman acknowledges in the notes, several of the songs were impromptu compositions, made up during playtimes and traffic jams.

That said, the leap isn't long from "Song for My Father" (off Equal Scary People) to an entire disc of songs for her daughter. It's all just sort of...inevitable. The selection of songs ranges from the well-of-course ("Hush," a giddy rendition of Ella Fitzgerald's "A-Tisket A-Tasket," the closing "Brahms' Lullaby," "You Are My Sunshine") to the what-the-heck (Cat Stevens' "Moonshadow," which, far as I could tell, always scared small children and smaller animals), to the Hickman-penned, which range from the absolutely silly (the aforementioned "Goop's In It," which is a good place to start and a better place to end) to the delightful enough ("A Slice of Heaven"). The best of Hickman's originals here is "It's Alright," which appears twice: During the first go-round, Hickman performs the tune a capella (with only a cricket to accompany her), and it's stunning, the sound of a woman whose voice (so deep and lonesome at times, so high and ebullient at others) could convert any cynic. The second time through is even better, as a string quartet manages to turn a hymn into a symphony; this version ranks among her finest recorded moments. Second-place finisher goes to the Hickman-Colin Boyd number "This Heart," which belongs not only to a small child, but anyone who actually possesses one.

Robert Wilonsky


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