The first full length album from keyboardist, vocalist, and songwriter John Hickman, Remnants, is a stylistically nimble release featuring a dozen songs. The songwriting and production template Hickman sets for the work as a whole harkens back to eighties progressive rock, particularly work from bands like Yes and Asia, but has a much warmer sound than releases from that era ever realized and Hickman resists succumbing to any clichés about self-indulgence with focused construction that never wastes listeners’ time. Hickman tackles weighty, imaginative, and entertaining subject matter alike over the course of the twelve songs and its wide mix of themes and attitudes nevertheless maintains a consistency of purpose. He’s surrounded himself with talented collaborators, but Remnants is first and foremost a songwriter’s album rather than some flash vehicle devoid of substance.
“Cascade” is a perfect example of Hickman revisiting familiar territory in popular song and making something quite individual of it. The sweeping intro is largely carried by its monumental drumming, but the accompanying synthesizer helps fill it out with color. There’s something so wonderfully assertive yet eminently likeable about this song. The music and narrator alike will not be denied, but they come at the listener with such finesse and melody that it never threatens to overwhelm listeners. “Hello Hello” is pure power pop delight and Hickman handles the singing duties with loose, open-armed confidence. His ear for a memorable melody drives much of his songwriting, but his impressive energy level is equally important. It risks traveling in cliché to say that Hickman plays with the unbridled exuberance of a musician a quarter century his junior while still displaying the skill one associates with a lifetime of learning your instrument, but Hickman does that and much more on “Hello Hello”.
“Passing Thru” illustrates his gifts with acoustic balladry. This is quite a pastoral piece with shimmering guitar textures and deeply emotive, deliberate vocal from Hickman. “Remnants of the Human Race” is one of the album’s centerpiece numbers and takes another sharp stylistic turn. The lyric is imaginative in a much more outright way than most, but the lyric still appeals to the personal as there’s little doubt when listening to the marriage of Hickman’s voice with the beautifully arranged piano that he means every word he sings. Hickman incorporates some light strings and strong harmony vocals in “Soiled Dove” and it helps him flesh out arguably the album’s finest character study with some high pop color.
Hickman has an enjoyable weakness for the piano-driven ballad on Remnants second half, but no one listening will ever mind. “What They Told Me” is a song anyone over the age of thirty will likely relate to within the first minute and Hickman’s carefully phrased, slightly melancholy vocal captures all the bittersweet recognition contained within the lyric. The full gamut of human emotions is on display here. Remnants is a bright and audacious release from an artist looking, ultimately, to please no one but himself while pleasing anyone listening in the process.