An endless stream of competent singer/songwriters have emerged in the acoustic-guitar backwash of Suzanne Vega and Tracy Chapman, but very few have the versatile artistry of Sara Hickman. This North Carolina-born Texan has a marvelous voice — at once sweet and sexy — that can gently croon a folk lullabye and hold its own in a polite rock’n’roll arrangement. With winning songs that are emotionally resonant and a little loopy, Equal Scary People (initially issued by a Texas indie) is an album that easily stands out in a soundalike crowd. Cool enough to make peace with James Brown in a solemn, bluesy upended version of “This Is a Man’s World” and unselfconscious enough to write a soppy “Song for My Father,” Hickman takes some chances on her first LP and comes through with the warm intimacy of an old friend.
David Kershenbaum’s overzealous adult-contemporary production on Shortstop seems designed to cast Hickman as a young Joni Mitchell. (Denny Fongheiser’s big-beat drumming and Larry Klein’s fretless bass clichés are particularly annoying.) Hickman’s willing participation, especially on the jazzy “I Couldn’t Help Myself,” in this sleek commercial effort is disappointing in light of her first album’s easygoing openness, but she rises to the challenge with exquisite vocal control and clever, inventive songs on such diverse topics as Salvador Dali, American hostages, sisterly love and the foibles of male sexuality.