Thursday, September 28, 2017

Love and Everyday Hope: The Wickham Brothers Go Solo

          Though they both have moments reminiscent of their great band Hadacol, this year’s two solo albums by Fred Wickham and brother Greg are a study in contrasts. Being brothers is no doubt polarizing, but being bandmates, it’s amazing they still work together two decades down the road. The great news is they’ve each found their own voices, intertwined by that Hadacol sensibility, but expansive in their distinction. A crude way to say it would be Greg goes big with a rare, brave excellence while brother Fred fingers heartache with quiet, heartrending precision. Another crude way to put it is Greg’s If I Left This World is a pop album, a pop album about death, and Fred’s Mariosa Delta is a blues album, a blues album about the promise of love.

           But all that’s too simplistic. Fred Wickham’s album is firmly rooted in a pop sensibility almost a century old while Greg’s album focuses on more recent sounds. They both reach wide for listeners, and the spindle of these two albums is mortality, the big tent anthemic album revolving around silent grief, and the humble swing record spinning round a tale of cold blooded murder.

            If I Left This World has been out half a year, so let’s start with that one. It’s a big record, but grounded. Greg starts and ends the record with prayers for his daughters. “Angel of Mercy (Song for Sophie)” uses a waltzing wall of sound to drive off his daughter’s pain and to encourage a life truly lived—“let her dance through the shadows til she finds her way home.” Closer “Elsie’s Lullaby” dreams equally grand dreams with a quieter, string-laden touch.

Sounds and styles shift gracefully--from the fiery bluegrass prayer of “Oh Me Oh My” to the rock anthem call for hope (against hope), “Waterfall,” to the dark blues of “Clear,” and the quiet country ballad “If I Left This World.” Greg Wickham sings of people befuddled, defiant, extraordinarily loving and somewhat suicidal. Whatever Greg is singing about at any given time, he’s singing life and death stakes with a sense of humor and a vision big enough to be his final act.

Fred Wickham plays at equally high stakes but he plays them closer to the vest. It takes a while listening to opener “Big Fat Moon” to realize this c’mon the singer’s making is to a memory in his head. For all his swagger, he may well be the saddest of the hard cases that follow.

            And there’s some pretty hard cases. The rockabilly grind of “Rock Bottom Again” promises that the worst so far is nowhere near the worst that’s yet to come. The stubbornly clear vision of the lost soul in “Red Light” promises no hope or redemption. The ‘Better Man’ of “You Don’t Need Me’s” only plan is to “get stoned.” There’s a murder at the heart of this story, and you find yourself wondering how close other fingers are to other triggers. 

Both albums are gorgeous, and daring. Both singers have astounding voices. Both emerge absolutely themselves, using strings and horns over hard-hitting combos that couldn't sound more different.

And they’ve both got me writing tonight at a point in my life where writing doesn’t come easy. There’s times when you’ve lost too much to count and yet you still can't help but count the losses. There's times when you can't remember why you do the things you do, but you still know you need to do them. Both If I Left This World and Mariosa Delta are albums that know how to take that loss and confusion and turn it into a way to keep going. I don't know whether to sing praise or give thanks.

A spare live version of Fred Wickham's "You Don't Need Me"-- featuring Fred and bassist Richard Burgess.

Greg Wickham's "Waterfall" from last March's record release-- featuring guest/co-producer Kristie Stremel. Springfield, Missouri's legendary producer Lou Whitney took the helm on the Fred Wickham record.