Our short attention spans have rendered her an afterthought, no less so because Sara Hickman long ago (or was it last month?) stepped off the 500X and Club Dada stages and moved to Austin, where all the pretty folk and folkies go sooner or later. But just because she's out of sight doesn't mean Hickman, now a wife and mother of two, is out of sounds. She still releases an album every year or so on her own Sleeveless label, two of which have been aimed at the post-fetal: The first, 1999's Newborn, was a winsome, delightful disc--the whimsical sound of a smiling parent singing lullabies and laughers to a baby; it was followed last year by Toddler, no less charming an effort, even to those who swore off breeding. Such has long been Hickman's allure: She makes even the most deceptively simple tune resonate like a church bell rung in a still and silent night. In her big and brave voice you can hear a smile, suffer a frown, glimpse a single tear streaking down a pale face, sense the beating of a heart. That's what made her the sweetheart of Deep Ellum back when she sung of equal scary people and radiation men and distant daddies and the women who loved and forgave and needed them all.
God only knows what would have become of Hickman had Elektra Records given her the rose garden instead of the thorn bush in 1990, when the label released her Shortstop and then released her when she refused to play ball. Maybe she'd have become Shawn Colvin, winner of Grammys and platinum plaques; maybe she'd have become Taylor Dayne, a pouty pinup in skimpy nothings (a few years back, she told this paper that label execs begged as much of her). It's all ancient history, of course: She has the sturdy back catalog to prove the label wrong (including 1998's delightful Two Kinds of Laughter, produced by Adrian Belew, and 2000's aptly named Spiritual Appliances) and the merch (from T-shirts to "bootlegs," available from www.sarahickman.com) to keep any singer-songwriter in strings and picks for years. And now she has Faithful Heart, her forthcoming self-released disc full of, as she says, "love songs that have touched me throughout my life--some written by me in response to being in love, some written by others that affected me somewhere along the way." Appropriately, this musical cupid, split evenly between something borrowed and something new, makes its bow the eve after Valentine's Day.
Listening to Faithful Heart, recorded with Austin-based band Strings Attached, reminds one of what it was like to hear Hickman way back when: It's playful but never frivolous (cf. her scaled-down rendering of Antonio Carlos Jobim's "Wave"), deep but never self-absorbed, stirring but never maudlin, grown-up but never settled. Depending on the mood, it either breaks your heart or mends it; with Hickman, there's a fine line. At times, she can sound like Aimee Mann (not surprising, given "Coolness by Mistake" was co-written with Mann pal Jon Brion) or Joni Mitchell (whose "Chelsea Morning" rises like the sun after a string of gray days) or Sarah Vaughan (but one of hundreds to cover "When I Fall in Love") or Beth Nielsen Chapman (whose 1993 song "Faithful Heart" gives the disc its title), but never does Hickman get lost in the shadow of standards or the singer-songwriters from whom she pilfers (including Neil and Tim Finn, whose "It's Only Natural" also guests). It's testament to her talent as writer that "Claim on My Heart," written alone and performed with stark accompaniment, is among the disc's most perceptive and evocative offerings; "I'd take you to a restaurant, but I don't have any money," she sings, "so I hope you'll settle for a claim on my heart." After making records for babies, she's made one for adults--or one, specifically, for the husband into whose ear she whispers and belts in equal measure. Kind of her to share.
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