FolkWax on “Motherlode”

A Triumphant Return

You have to go back to 2002 and Faithful Heart to find Sara Hickman’s most recent studio recording that featured adult content. From 1999 through 2003 she scored accolades and awards for her trio of children’s music recordings. Silent for too long in the adult marketplace, Hickman’s take with Motherlode appears to have been "make mine a double." A word of caution, however: Whereas Sara’s six solo studio recordings from 1989 through 2000 featured mostly self-penned material, only eight of the 20 tracks on Motherlode feature her name, and half that total involve a co-writer. As for the overall thrust of the two discs, they can be summed up as presenting positive and negative scenarios. For one’s "down days," the contents of Disc 1: The Mirror (Of Despair) will either assist you in descending further into your own particular slough or in figuring out that it’s time to pull up your "big girls" and get on with life. On "up days," you can draw liberally upon Disc 2: The Thread (Of Happiness).

David Batteau of Appaloosa and Buskin & Batteau fame is Sara’s co-writer on "A Song Of You," the opening cut on Disc 1, in which the narrator reflects upon the passage of time and "a love lived so well." (Batteau and Hickman have collaborated previously; their "Oh, Daddy" appeared on Hickman’s Necessary Angels [1994].) Hickman has suffered from insomnia for many years, and "To A Maddening Ghost" was penned as an acknowledgement that "sleep won’t come," in the hope that it would bring catharsis. "Wagoner’s Lad," featuring Sara on lead vocal and harmonies, is the collection’s only traditional tune; it depicts the pre-emancipation plight of womankind – "Controlled by their parents … until they are wives/Then slaves to their husbands … the rest of their lives." With music by Hickman and album keyboardist Eddy Hobizal, and featuring fine electric lead guitar by David Grissom (Joe Ely Band, Dixie Chicks), the lyric to "Living In Quiet Desperation" paints a portrait of a love that has been "torn apart at the seams."

In the opening verse of "Twenty Years To Life," penned by Tricia Mitchell/Monte Warden (solo and ex-Wagoneers), the female narrator – prisoner #36425 – references the person "truly answerable" for her predicament: "For 20 years I loved a man/With a temper like a gun/Sometimes I wasn’t good enough/Some days his only one." This atmospheric cut features a support vocal from Kelly Willis and adapts the melody of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards’ "Mother’s Little Helper" via a jazzy arrangement featuring Austin-based string ensemble Tosca. Sara closes Disc 1 with a couple of her own songs, "Comfort’s Sigh" and "My Mama’s Hands." Where the former focuses on personal faith and strength, the latter is a generational treatise on life, death, and bonds that can never be broken.

Disc 2 opens with another Hickman/Batteau collaboration, this one with a melodically cyclical intro where the guitar sound brings to mind Paul Simon’s "Graceland." The duo’s uplifting and wonderfully atmospheric "Birdhouse," a personal reflection upon mankind and the natural world at the dawn of the 21st century, hinges on the bridge: "All that we’ve forgotten/We’ve become machines … Turning to the garden…To dream." The good-time tune that underpins the tongue-twisting title "Two Days Today," flows from Pop to Reggae and back, while a Shawn Colvin harmony vocal supports Hickman’s lead. Austin-based Tricia Mitchell’s "Learn You Like A Book," penned with Dallas musician Colin Boyd, finds the narrator, in the process of rekindling love with an old flame, asking what happened to him or her in the time between. The raunchy "Are We Ever Gonna Have Sex Again," by Nashville’s Amy Rigby and Sherry Rich, opens with the sound of a dial tone and a voice that states, "If you need assistance, dial your operator. This is a recording." "Stupid Love," recorded at Phil Parlapiano’s Los Angeles studio and co-written by Hickman and Parlapiano, has a confused narrator who is "fighting all the time/Over stupid odds and ends/Then we make love and make up as friends." Bay Area-based Amy Meyers’ "Good" appeared on her 2004 album Strange & Beautiful, and the song won her the San Francisco West Coast Songwriters Association Open Mic in March 2004.

With a refrain that amounts to "Enough is never enough," "Enuf," penned by Mark Addison and Nina Singh, marries an R&B tune to lyrics delivered Hip-Hop-style. One of the collection’s executive producers, Paul Hudson, composed the laid-back "Always A Saint." Hickman maintains her support for Dallas musicians with the happy-go-lucky "Little Bird Of Anger," penned by Bob Ackerman of The Ackermans. The song closed the duo’s current album As Far As I Can See" and on Sara’s rendition she’s joined, vocally, by daughter Lily and a choir of friends. Wisconsin-bred Peter Himmelman’s optimistic "This Too Will Pass" ("Oh, like a sprouting seed/You’ll grow through this weed") appeared on his 1991 album Strength To Strength; here, Jimmy LaFave adds his voice to the cut. Dan Cohen’s soulful "Your Reward" features the voices of Hickman, Gretchen Phillips, and Ruthie Foster. The latter pair contribute elsewhere on Motherlode – and here, aided by a brass section, bring the collection to a rousing climax.

I used the word "adult" in the opening sentence, and I repeat it here as a device to draw your attention to the couple portrayed in flagrante delicto on the front cover of Motherlode. Look a little closer at the same cover and you’ll spot some instances of sly marital humour.

FolkWax Rating: 8

— Arthur Wood, FolkWax

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