Excluding cassette-only juvenilia and other larks, Airport Sparrows, to be released by Soft Launch Records on September 2, is songwriter Dylan Hicks’s eighth album of songs, his seventh as a solo act. In this case he has affixed to his name to that of his latest and largest band, Small Screens. Together, they’re a sextet of Twin Cities–based players, all but its leader most active in jazz and art-music circles, though all have pop experience, too. They are Christopher Thomson on saxophone, clarinet, and synthesizer; Michelle Kinney on cello; Zacc Harris on electric and acoustic guitar; Hicks on vocals, pianos, and acoustic guitar; Charlie Lincoln on upright bass; and Peter Hennig on drums and banjo. Hicks writes the material and delegates some written parts, but arrangements tend to be collaborative and flexible, and the tunes leave space for improvisation: sometimes solos and group interplay over changes, sometimes solos, duos, and collective improvisation over freer structures. Most tracks were recorded “live,” including vocals, at Minneapolis’s Creation Audio, the same room where Dave Dudley cut “Six Days on the Road,” though some overdubs and corrections were allowed. The text alert heard on “Ghost Blog” was unintentionally tracked live. It was someone fundraising for the governor.
The album is something of a departure for Hicks but not an about-face. Lest the above paragraph imply otherwise, Hicks & Small Screens are a pop group with some stretch more than a fancy group with some pop, and Airport Sparrows, along with its sprawling instrumental title track (parts of which can be hummed!), is as often groovy as it is contemplative and has lots of memorable melodies and lyrics, the latter generally reflecting the bookish sensibility and seriocomic worldview that have marked some of Hicks’s previous work. For this album, most of the lyrics rhyme and use fairly regular meter, but some are prosier, expanding a mode dabbled with on the album’s two predecessors, Accidental Birds and Munson-Hicks Party Supplies, the latter being Hicks’s collaboration with the singer, multi-instrumentalist, and producer John Munson. This is the second consecutive Hicks album with an avian title; the titular link is more capricious than conceptual.
The album will be released digitally and as a CD on September 2. A three-song 12-inch 45 RPM single and album sampler of sorts—including “The Weather on Your Side,” “I Ain’t Forgotten You,” and “Airport Sparrows”—will follow at some point in early 2023, depending on the severity of widespread delays in vinyl production.
Hicks was born in a bohemian sector of Austin, Texas, in 1970, and has lived since 1983 in Minneapolis. In addition to writing and performing music, he has written the novels Amateurs and Boarded Windows, as well as criticism, essays, journalism, and word puzzles for the Village Voice, the New York Times, the New England Review, Slate, the Guardian, the Los Angeles Review of Books, the Paris Review Daily, Mpls.-St. Paul, and other publications, many of them now defunct. He lives with his wife, Nina Hale, an entrepreneur, craftsperson, birder, and photographer. Their grown son, Jackson, lives nearby.