Two Kinds of Laughter
By Sander Wolf
Sara Hickman's newest recorded effort, Two Kinds of Laughter, is a rough and tumble affair that effortlessly switches extreme moods and emotions. There's mellow solo cuts ("Eight"), boisterous choir appearances ("I Wear The Crown"), adventurous avant-garde experiments ("E Cosi Desio Me Mena"), and sensual interludes ("Coolness By Mistake") right after each other. Yet, even through all those changes there's still an underlying thread that holds it all together.
The new album, Hickman's fifth solo release, is her most diverse yet and in a way is the most lifelike. In the span of a typical conversation Hickman is equally as likely to laugh as to cry, sing, or whisper. She'll give the same emphasis to stories about walking around with her almost two-year-old daughter as she will to philosophical discussions about the dire direction that society is headed. Now, for the first time, one of her albums reflects that unique, free-flowing personality.
Produced by King Crimson noise-master Adrian Belew, the unexpected turns on Two Kinds of Laughter ended up delighting not only her fans, but even Hickman herself. "[Belew] definitely did 'I Wear The Crown,'" raves Hickman, "all I said to him was, 'I hear some old english instruments.' He ended up adding the big chorus at the end and playing all of the different instruments on his guitar synthesizer. It was amazing when I finally heard everything that he'd done."
Part of the variety on Two Kinds of Laughter also comes from the fact that several of the songs were co-written with others or are covers of other people's songs. Usually, Hickman albums are almost entirely Hickman authored. "I had gone out to Los Angeles in '96 and got the chance to write with a bunch of people. It turned out to be about 10,000 times more fun then writing by myself," says Hickman. This sense of collaboration yielded songs like the edgey "Optimistic Fool" and the uptempo, "Look At It This Way" which gained some lyrical help from Colin Boyd.
Then there's also the fact that this album is Hickman's first original release for Shanachie, her third record label. Misfits (1997), a collection of odds and ends, was her Shanachie debut. After two somewhat successful albums, Equal Scary People (1989) and Shortstop (1990), Hickman's fans had to raise about $40,000 to buy her already recorded third album back from Elektra which had refused to release it themselves. Hickman still gets choked up talking about the fans who helped come up with the money, "The donors were supposed to wear these blue aluminum bracelets until the hostages, my songs, were released. There are 300 people, I call them 'Necessary Angels,' that are now bonded together because of this experience. Every time I see a fist raised in the audience with one of the bracelets it gets to me." The resulting album, Necessary Angels (1994), was eventually released on Discovery Records. Hickman borrowed the idea of the bracelets from the silver bracelet that she used to wear that was inscribed with Thomas Sutherland's name and the date he was taken hostage on it. The song "If We sent Our Hearts Over Now," written about Sutherland's situation, appeared on Shortstop. Since his release about seven years ago Sutherland and Hickman have developed a friendship culminating with her sending him the bracelet that she had worn. "I was so moved that he would take the time to call me," Hickman says recalling their initial two-way communication, "It was the sweetest thing. One of these days I'm going to go see him, but I'm kind of nervous about it."
All this newfound diversity could also be because of the different markets Hickman has recently found for her vocal talents. These days you're just as likely to hear Hickman on the radio as you are between segments of Seinfeld. She's the voice of Walmart, singing the store's praises in jingles across the nation. She's also pitched Coke, Daisy Sour Cream, and Southwest Airlines but while most artists, even though they make far more money from them than they do from record sales, would shy away from their commercial work, Hickman embrasses it. "The way I look at it," she says, "is that I have a lot of causes that I like to support, and now that I'm doing Walmart I can do even more. I like to stay involved but it's really expensive, especially now that I have a little girl."
Of course, the real reason that Two Kinds of Laughter is so eclectic is that it is so like its author. Both on the album and in person, Hickman's a joy to keep up with.