Country album fails to find clarity

Tilting: the act of attacking imaginary enemies. As Cervantes’ infamous storybook goon once made a whole lot out of nothing in Spain, Johnny Hickman feels it necessary to pick up the Don’s cross and have a go at it. But one cannot inject substance into a lifeless work through a title alone.

So what’s in a name? Tilting by Johnny Hickman by any other name would smell as odious. The name might be trying to say one thing, but Hickman’s album as a whole certainly does not say anything at all.

Where Don Quixote’s insanity turned readers sympathetic and reinforced the character’s likeability, Tilting, with its musical schizophrenia and vapid soul, secures no admiration for Johnny Hickman. It’s mainly because of the obvious low production value of the album, Johnny’s lack of direction and charisma and the many, many musical influences, which cause this record to sound like an amateur collection of other notable artists.

Tilting opens with “Measure of a Man,” which promptly lures you into a false sense of security. The song starts in an intriguing way — lyrically introspective, instrumentally simple. Then the country guitars and slightly twanged vocals come in, cannibalizing any merits the song has. The subsequent addition of honky-tonk violins cement the song as poor karaoke fodder.

It’s with the first track that we also encounter Hickman’s lack of personal artistry. The first track oozes Bob Dylan lyricisms and musical stylings without ever recreating the storytelling magic that Dylan could so easily conjure. Later in the album, Hickman indubitably draws from The Who’s classic rock sound, but not in a tasteful way.

The stylings don’t hint of the singer’s admiration of the esteemed band; instead, Hickman’s use of The Who’s signature vocal and guitar mixes on tracks such as “Dream Along with Me” and the album’s closer “Another Road” demonstrates a lack of originality and talent.

With all the different artistic influences, the album has no clear-cut message or sound to convey, making Tilting a shaky, inconsistent listen.

From country to classic rock to pop-rock, it seems as if Tilting covers all the bases, even if the hodgepodge of genres feels off putting most of the time. If one were to decide in which genre Hickman sounds most comfortable, it would be country.

Now, that’s not saying he excels in this area — almost none of the album is above par, for that matter — but Hickman’s wannabe radio-friendly odes, reminescent of Fountains of Wayne and Oasis, sound dated and even more unimpressive. The trouble is that Hickman simply lacks the special flair that makes his music interesting.

On “Destiny Misspent,” Hickman croons lines like “in these bug-zapping hours before morning” as if he drafted a Shakespearean sonnet. But with overtly simple lyrical storytelling and guitar work, the track sounds more like a mediocre open mic night from a college campus. Seeing how Hickman’s connected to a group that has gone gold (Cracker), it’s difficult to understand his unexciting effort here.

One might think that the moderate success of Cracker would have given Hickman the leverage to finance a quality solo release. That said, Tilting simply sounds low quality.

The poor recording, production and engineering is blatant in songs like “Not Enough.” Here the art really suffers. Hickman’s anti-ode to the U.S. would have been an interesting subversion of country music’s often-stereotypical pro-America themes. Yet, because of the lack of high-quality production, “Not Enough” — and the rest of the album — falls flat.

After everything, can an album really be 100 percent bad? Tilting gets close, but “Whittled Down” deserves a pause for consideration — it’s the only track on the album that has something to boast about. “Whittled” shows off meaning in its strong use of metaphor and the lyrics and instrumentation, though simple, work because of clear, focused musical storytelling. Everything comes together on this track, and it’s probably the only time something feels complete and successful on this album.

After this high note, the album continues its downward spiral. “Papa Johnny’s Arms” is a weird musical number, egotistical and slightly creepy-sounding — if Hickman is trying to be Tom Waits, it isn’t working out for him. One needs some major star power to successfully sing a song about how great they are without sounding arrogant, which isn’t what happens here.

Tilting fails because it tries to tilt in too many directions. It doesn’t help that Hickman doesn’t have the will to balance 12 tracks without the whole album falling into oblivion.


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