on “Motherlode”

To paraphrase a defunct automaker’s catch phrase, “This is not your toddler’s Sara Hickman!”

Hickman’s new double album, Motherlode, catches the prolific singer and writer of both adult and children’s songs in two distinctly grown-up moods: one quite desperate, the other more defiant.

Clearly, womanhood and motherhood, and the mud too often slung at both, weigh heavily and proximately on Hickman, who traditionally has smiled brightly from her album covers.

True, many of her previous outings were also bittersweet, often blending hope and despair, love and loss. This time out, however, despair and loss push more forcefully to the fore; but while hope and love are less readily apparent than usual, they remain forces nonetheless.

On disc one, The Mirror (Of Despair), Hickman juxtaposes biting lyrics against sweet music and well crafted musicianship to highlight the fate of women trapped in a misogynistic social prison. She critiques the status quo most effectively with an upbeat reading of the traditional The Wagoner’s Lad; an honest, achingly personal take on Tears for Fear’s Mad World; and her own self-affirming Comfort’s Sigh and My Mama’s Hands.

With disc two, The Thread (Of Happiness), Hickman leverages a set of (literally) more brassy songs to defy that patriarchal prison. Here, she broadens her musical palette with the funky, horn driven reggae of her own Two Days Today; the country-flavored blues of Amy Rigby’s Are We Ever Gonna Have Sex Again?; the post-hip-hop R&B of Addison and Singh’s Enuf; the classic folk-rock of Peter Himmelman’s This Too Will Pass; and the soulful jazz of Dan Cohen’s paean to parenthood, Your Reward.

Despite occasional heavy-handed production/engineering/mixing values – for which Hickman as Producer must be held responsible – both discs share her deliciously versatile vocals, creative arrangements, and the support of a cadre of guest artists both local (including singer/songwriters Shawn Colvin and Kelly Willis) and national (including guitar guru Adrian Belew).

Motherlode documents Hickman’s reaction to a social minefield that should have been swept clean years ago. With well crafted and chosen words and music she describes, critiques, and in her way overcomes an unjust world in which women remain second-class citizens. And all along, she manages to eschew self-destruction negativism in favor of a healthy dose of “can do” positivism.

Whether or not Hickman purposefully includes her piquant and hit-worthy cover of The Rolling Stones’ Mother’s Little Helper to remind us that baby-boomer second wave feminism is now four-plus decades old is questionable. Whatever the case, it is a timely reminder that equality for women and mothers in both the private and public spheres should no longer be an issue, but a fact.

4 1/2 of 5 stars.

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