Tom Tikka Releases New Single
It is said an unexamined life is not worth living. Even a cursory listen to Tom Tikka’s new release, a ten song collection entitled This Is My Happy Face, reveals him as a fervent believer in that credo. The unifying theme of the release takes on the idea of life after death and, while it sounds far from an ideal topic for a song cycle, Tikka’s songwriting has such a profoundly human aspect and the accompanying music is so good you forgive the weighty subject matter.
It’s far from trite. These songs don’t grope for meaning or clarity and, instead, boast intelligence and a streamlined craftsmanship far outpacing many of his peers and contemporaries. There’s no one grappling with mortality like this. I remember the author Philip Roth remarking years ago that it is, initially, surprising the history of literature, popular music, movies, and so forth seldom face one of the central facts and mysteries of our brief lives. Its uncompromising form is too much to face, too difficult to dramatize or explain.
So give Tom Tikka points for bravery. You can hear that bravery in the first song as Tikka starts things off with a figurative bang. “Bullet in the Head” covers a rare subject for modern songwriting, suicide, without ever miring listeners in despair or gloom. The vigorous arrangement never gets carried away with itself and the lyrics are chiseled to an unsentimental edge.
The second song “Heart’s on Fire” is much more rousing and the contrasting passages of light and shadow are well-placed throughout the performance. Orchestrating the various elements of a song into a coherent and fluid whole isn’t something you can learn; time and practice can sharpen your talents in this area but, ultimately, the old saying that you either have it or you don’t holds true here. Tikka has it in ample supply.
The tense high-wire guitar sound heard in the first two tracks stands out in “Space Cowboys” as well. It begins at a steady simmer, vocals and guitar with light sound effects lain over top before the full band arrangement kicks off near the one minute mark. Tikka deserves considerable props for drawing palpable atmospherics out of the performance without ever over-exerting and the track’s slow build is note perfect.
Tikka’s guitar-centric approach reaches a zenith with the track “(I Wish I Could) Fly to the Moon”. One of the several reasons it stands out from an already fine pack is the memorable guitar riff that serves as the tip of this particular spear. Other parts of the track leave their mark on listeners as well. The vocal is one of the album’s best and the percussion, once again, lays down a propulsive groove.
“Sweet Jesus!” addresses the man from Nazareth in an unique way and is surprisingly affecting. The obvious heartfelt commitment behind both Tikka’s vocals and writing held my attention throughout and I believe the vital backing given to the words is perfect. It highlights one of the most crucial aspects of the album’s quality. It’s humor is dark and sometimes sarcastic but nonetheless helps mitigate a lot of the heaviness that might otherwise weigh down the performances.
The brief choral vocals included at the beginning of the finale “Garden of Judas” marks this as a very different work than its predecessors. Hammond organ, wah-wah laced guitar, and hushed vocals conspire to set a memorably dramatic stage. It’s an appropriately wide-open finale for an album tackling such grand themes. Tom Tikka and the Missing Hubcaps’ This Is My Happy
Face is one of the more challenging releases I’ve heard in recent memory and a genuine imperfect work of musical art.