PopMatters on “The Best of Times”

By Jedd Beaudoin, 2 November 2011

Sara Hickman’s songs shine in the hands of others.

Texas certainly isn’t alone in suffering from what some might view as an assault on the arts, but this two-disc compilation suggests that citizens of the Lone Star State may be among the most vocal opponents of such slashing. Sara Hickman, the Official State Musician, opted to create this two-CD compilation in order to raise $250,000 for the Theatre Action Project (TAP), a non-profit organization that brings art, music, and theatre back to Central Texas schools.

So, is it any good? As is with the case of virtually every such compilation since the beginning of time, the answer is yes, but not overwhelmingly amazing.

With such an ambitious goal in mind, Hickman called upon just about every Texas musician imaginable, and the result is a richly diverse cast with a decidedly diverse range of styles: the blues-pop of Shelley King, the glistening pop of Patrice Pike, the ever-reliable Marcia Ball, the indefatigable hokum purveyors White Ghost Shivers, plus Edie Brickell and New Bohemians, the Flatlanders, and the improbably named Trout Fishing In America.

The first disc begins with Willie Nelson’s reading of “Simply”, which reminds us that Nelson is one of those rare vocalists who could probably make a fast food menu sound like an inspired symphony, and the ethnic-intensive “It’s In the Water” from the Djembabes is far more fantastic than it has a right to be. Colin Gilmore’s “After the Fall” is equally memorable, as is Robert Earl Keen’s “Under the Sycamore Tree”. However, the usually reliable Rhett Miller sounds lost on “Last Night Was a Big Rain”, as though he hasn’t quite yet learned the song or its words; “Take Me with You” from Christine Albert and Chris Cage is a bit precious, while Ray Von Foster’s “Give It Every Little Thing You’ve Got” comes off as more than a little mismatched amid the aforementioned peers. In fact, if there’s one problem that consistently plagues this release, especially the first half, it’s the haphazard running order.

The second act begins with a reminder that Edie Brickell is always better with New Bohemians behind her via “Shadowboxing”. Abra Moore is always great to hear and her take on “Dear Tracey” is both fun and haunting, and Ana Egge once more proves herself as smart, impossible to pigeonhole. If you’ve never experienced the inimitable White Ghost Shivers, “Kayaking” isn’t a bad time to do so, while those old Flatlanders bring their A-game with “Comfort’s Sigh”, cast here as a deeply haunting AM radio-ready piece. Other surprise gems include Sarah Fox and Joel Guzman’s “I Wear The Crown”, Betty Soo’s “Sister and Sam”, and Jess Klein’s solemn, beautiful “The One”.

None of this would be possible of course without the ace songs that Hickman herself has written throughout her career. The faith her friends have in her songs is remarkable and perhaps an extended suggestion that we might all be wise to become more acquainted with her work.

Rating: 7 out of 10

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