Before pairing up for one of the most charming albums of this pandemic year, Dylan Hicks and John Munson first applied their mutual sense of humor and melody to writing a musical together. They ran into a few problems, though.
“The two best songs in it had nothing to do with the plot,” conceded Hicks, the songwriter in this pairing.
Munson, the primary singer, also pointed out, “Neither Dylan nor I really like musicals very much.”
Ah, well. What the Minnesota music mainstays came up with instead was their answer to “Nilsson Sings Newman,” the classic 1970 double-album of Harry Nilsson interpreting Randy Newman songs.
Their self-titled LP, under the moniker Munson-Hicks Party Supplies, finds the renowned bassist and backup vocalist (Munson) voicing the quirky yet familiar characters and complex emotions of the respected literary tunesmith and author (Hicks).
And yes, those two tunes from the sidelined musical are part of the mix.
“And guitar solos,” Munson proudly added. “There are no solos in musicals.”
Issued last month and on tap for a virtual release party Friday at the Hook & Ladder, the jazzy, bright MHPS record is actually way more piano-based than guitar-driven, starting with the very Newman-like, hard-times-eschewing opening track “Only Smoke.”
Minneapolis jazz guitar ace Zacc Harris does add some savory guitar fills on several tracks, including the playful ode to outdated dating methodology “Landline.”
There’s also a little neo-twang, ’70s soft-rock and ’80s synth-pop sprinkled throughout — all of it light, wistful and a tad weary-sounding musically, even when the lyrics have a heavier underbelly. Case in point: “Sawtooth,” one of the most melancholic songs about a protest you’ll ever hear.
The duo started on a whim.
Hicks, of course, knew Munson from the ’80s-’90s rock bands Trip Shakespeare and Semisonic. Munson became a Hicks fan via his infectious 2000 local radio hit “City Lights.”
The two musician dads never really hung out together, though, until Hicks asked Munson somewhat out of the blue to produce his 2017 solo album “Ad Out.”
“I knew our taste overlapped a fair amount, and I thought we’d get along,” Hicks explained.
As Munson remembered it, “I believe the way he worded it was, ‘I think I could tolerate you producing a record for me.’ ”
Through their subsequent work on the musical, Hicks came to appreciate the sound of Munson singing his compositions and eventually started writing with his accomplice in mind.
“John has some technical resources I don’t have — more power in his voice, and he can sustain a note longer,” explained Hicks, whose own nasal but soulful singing voice has plenty of fans; it’s featured on three of the Party Supplies album tracks.
“More can happen with John singing,” he continued, pointing to a changed lyrical element, too.
“Usually I write in character, and hearing someone else sing my songs sort of creates another layer of distance in my mind. It made things interesting and fun.”
While he usually played sideman to the more golden-voiced brothers Matt and Dan Wilson in his old bands, Munson did step out on lead vocals at times; most notably Trip Shakespeare’s cult-loved ultra-Minnesotan ballad “Snow Days.”
It wasn’t until he formed the cabaret-style covers trio the New Standards with the Suburbs’ Chan Poling in the mid-2000s that Munson really showed off his vocal prowess and knack for interpreting other writers’ songs. He furthered that role as the bandleader on the American Public Media radio show “Wits” in the 2010s.
“I love singing. I just have never written enough songs to fill my own album,” Munson said.
And anyway, he takes great pride in helping more stalwart songwriters bring their music to life.
“At ‘Wits,’ guest musicians would come in for one day and do a performance with the band, and I would have to put them at ease, especially if I didn’t know them. They could be confident I’d be prepared. They knew I cared, and I always did.”
Munson has stayed relatively busy through quarantine — between Semisonic’s new EP, “You’re Not Alone,” a pending backup plan for the New Standards’ annual holiday shows and a gestating anthology of Trip Shakespeare live recordings.
Hicks, meanwhile, is currently working on his third book, following 2012’s “Boarded Windows” and 2016’s “Amateurs.”
Still, the duo hopes to continue working together, including making another MHPS album, and maybe even finishing that musical.
“Working with John has helped my confidence,” said Hicks, “and I do think he’s helped me improve as a writer and musician.”
Munson certainly gives Hicks reason to feel more confident.
“I’ve had the opportunity to work with some of the best musicians and songwriters in the world,” the bassist said, “and I truly feel like Dylan is of that world. His writing is that great.”