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Published: 2009/03/30
by Brian Robbins

Tangled Tales – Dan Hicks & the Hot Licks

Surfdog Records

It’s almost a clichhen writing about a musician whose career has spanned over 40 years to direct the uninitiated to said musician’s earlier work: “1967’s BlahBlahBlah is definitely required listening” or “The BlahBlahBlah box set provides a fine overview of their career.” Well, far be it from me to discourage you from digging into Dan Hicks’ early catalog, but the fact of the matter is you can start with his latest offering, Tangled Tales, and do just fine. Here’s the deal: Dan Hicks was probably pushing 30 when I first heard his music all those years ago, but he sounded like an eccentric cool hipster that was way older. Now he’s in his late 60’s and just as cool and witty and weird he just caught up with himself. The bottom line is, Dan’s still delivering the goods, wrapped in his own unique saddle blanket of gypsy jazz woven with western swing with threads of blues, bacon grease, and bebop tying it all together.

Listening to Tangled Tales is like watching an R. Crumb cartoon character walk a tight rope. There’s a quirky gonzo humor on the surface, but the music behind it is fiercely tight with no room for error. Listen to the syncopated stops and starts or the rhythm change-ups; take in the multi-layered harmonies or the too-cool instrumental breaks; take a deep breath and try to follow those crazily-comped chords or high-speed scats there’s nothing simple about this stuff, folks.

Take the song “Diplomat”, for instance: over a jaunty rhythm, Hicks comes off like a happy-go-lucky Tom Waits (smoky croon rather than wells-of-hell bottomless growl), staying one step ahead of peril and “dodging bullets every way I turn.” That’s buddy David Grisman you hear, sprinkling handfuls of mando happiness about and weaving licks with Richard Chon’s violin. The Hot Licks (Roberta Donnay and a gal simply known as Daria) are the perfect vocal foils for Hicks, injecting accents, harmonies, and Betty Boop-like exclamations in all the right places.

Or listen to the beautiful “Song For My Father,” featuring lovely guitar work by Bruce Forman and a violin solo by Richard Greene that’ll have you wiping your eyes. Hicks takes a translated Spanish lyric and makes it his own it tugs at your heartstrings rather than making you wiggle and giggle, but it still fits with the rest of the album.

Want some greasy blues, bay-bee? Take a ride with “The Rounder” once Hicks, the Hot Licks, slide guitar master Roy Rogers, and harp king Charlie Musselwhite pull over to let you out, you’re going to have a hard time standing up. Or how about a Hicksed-up version of Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues”? Oh, yeah, daddy.

The cool dorm rooms and FM stations of the early 1970s always had a copy of Dan Hicks’ Original Recordings or Where’s The Money or Last Train to Hicksville handy. The good news: a copy of Tangled Tales will make you just as cool.

Let’s let the man himself have the last word(s), courtesy of the album’s title song:

Bah-bey-bah-deet dot diddy-boodle ot bee ba diddle ooh bah oop deity-bah deet dot dootie beep boop bop pah-doy!

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