Even the first time around, Dan Hicks never had anything in common with prevailing musical trends, so perhaps it shouldn't come as a surprise that "Beatin' the Heat," his first studio outing in 26 years, has the same timeless quality as the rest of his work. What is suprising is how little he has changed, and how good he still sounds: Plying the breezy vocal style and easygoing, melodic swing flavor that characterized such '70s gems as "Striking It Rich" and "Last Train to Hicksville," Hicks seems remarkably sharp for a guy whose only recorded output since 1974 was a little-noticed live album six years ago.
This effort has much more of the earmarks of a comeback. Hicks has revived the name of his old band for the occasion although for some reason it's Dan Hicks and the Hot Licks rather than His Hot Licks and the album is studded with guest appearances from Elvis Costello, Bette Midler, Brian Setzer, Ricki Lee Jones and Tom Waits. But worthy though their contributions may be, they are mostly window dressing; Midler's terrific vocal on "Strike It While It's Hot" notwithstanding, nothing here really needs the star wattage to justify it. Hicks has written a batch of tunes as strong as any he's ever recorded; along with the Midler duet highlights include "My Cello," "I Don't Want Love" and the revved-up "Meet Me on the Corner," in which Hicks and Costello volley the lyrics fast and furiously. Always fond of revisiting his back catalog, Hicks reprises his classic "I Scare Myself," and in the process reminds us how few songwriters have come along since who can successfully combine humor, pathos, irony and innocence. Here's hoping for another helping soon.