Life as a rock musician is not for everyone, but it would be difficult to imagine musician Johnny Hickman has made poor life choices. With David Lowery, he co-founded acclaimed and admired American rock band Cracker; their impressive discography starts with their self-titled 1992 album, and includes such greats as Kerosene Hat (1993), The Golden Age (1996) and Berkeley to Bakersfield (2014). Cracker’s songs, often written by both Lowery and Hickman, frequently feature driving guitar, with Hickman credited as lead guitarist. Hickman also has a solo career; his debut Palmhenge was released in 2005 (a “Voice Choice” for the Village Voice), and Tilting in 2012. He’s also released a 2019 EP, Dear John, and with Jim Dalton he is part of group the Hickman-Dalton Gang.
“Poor Life Choices” is an upbeat anthem with a downbeat lyric about heading down the wrong roads, with Hickman wondering whether he’d make the same decisions if he had another chance. Its’ dark sense of humour is lightened through the raucous accompaniment. “Misanthrope’s Blues” also is self-flagellating but in acoustic form, with a warning that “Daddy” has the said misanthrope’s blues, the relevant mother referring to him as a creep. In the context of warring parents, the message must be to avoid parental alienation, with two sides to every story.
Neither “Poor Life Choices” or “Misanthrope’s Blues” are necessarily autobiographical, but the album has been reported as being Hickman’s “pandemic” album, inspired by his weekly Friday Night Live From The Cave webcasts which took place during lockdowns; it’s also a post-divorce album.
Hickman is a credible frontman, and expertly plays many of the instruments on the album (guitars, bass, drums, percussion, mountain dulcimer, harmonica). The accompanying band are made up of Gary Broste/Bryan J. Howard (bass), Phillip Broste (pedal steel, backing vocals – and he also produced the album), Baily Stauffer (keyboards, backing vocals), Carlton Owens/Peter Knudson (drums) and Michelle Cernuto (vocals).
The fierce guitar solo on “Monster” (co-written with singer-songwriter Chris LeRoy) will remind Cracker fans of Hickman’s axe hero status, but there’s a lot more to him than this. Hickman, just like Cracker, is capable of great variety, and this is evident on the album. “Always Breaking Up” and “Lost on the Inside” are both melodic anthems with impressive vocals, the latter warning against over-intellectualising and delivered like an American Liam Gallagher. “Poor Life Choices”, ultimately a song about survivorship, is musically relentless. The laid-back country stroll of “The Other Side” is a thoughtful farewell to a musician. “Time Hurts” (written by Chris LeRoy) and “Under Control” are sensitive performances of more introspective songs.
A good frame of reference (to mangle a Lebowski’ism) for the album’s sound is Springsteen or Mellencamp; authenticity with an American twang (and there are some shared themes – “Summer Town” rumbles with the difficulties of living in a seasonal place). However there’s no doubt that Hickman has his own thing going on. “Poison Flower”, a striking, darkly gothic song and romantic in its brooding disillusion, is strikingly original. If poor life choices have led to the creative achievement on this album, there should be no place for regret.
Label: Campstove Records
Release Date: 2021