Winner of the fifth season of that phenom TV show we call American Idol, Taylor Hicks is not your typical amateur vocalist looking for a shot at the big time. In fact he isn't an amateur at all, but an old pro at the game. Casting himself among other Idol hopefuls, from high school choir boys to the somewhat seasoned club performers and singing vets who have worked small stages near and far across our great land, Hicks shamelessly joined the crowd as a seasoned performer of some merit. Moving to Nashville early in his career looking for a shot at making a name for himself he found session work (he also plays guitar and harmonica), cut demos, performed in clubs and at private parties (even making it out west for a gig at The Playboy Mansion) cut two independent albums, and had enough of a regional name to perform in the center field of the Talladega Superspeedway in 2004 at that years "NASCAR Weekend" event. And of those independent albums? Isn't that against Idol rules? Well, not exactly. American Idol rules say a performer cannot be signed
to a record deal prior, it says nothing of recording. Even if those recordings are yours and yours alone. Advantage: Hicks.
So what do we get from Taylor post Idol win? Well, we get a pretty good album of popish blue-eyed soul with a little broken hearted vision all its own. Looking like a man 10 years his senior with his prematurely gray mop top (Hicks is just 29 years old) and sounding it just as well, this is probably the most accomplished, confident, and focused "debut" album of any AI winner right from the start.
Taylor's voice is a full bodied, raspy tenor with considerable range and its perfectly suited to these mainstream, commercially oriented soulful rave ups and ballads. The sound of familiarity is strong in this collection of adult oriented R&B, ready for radio potential hits. And Hicks hits the ground running with the horn led, gospel infused "The Runaround", with Taylor sounding like the confident bandleader he apparently is right out of the gate, his voice front and center and pushed far up in the mix. Its an old school style toe tapper that is sure to have yuppies and boomers all across the country tapping their fingers across the steering wheels of their BMW's. Likewise the next cut up "Dream Myself Awake" features big blasts of horns across a more conventional pop groove that might be right at home on a Matchbox 20 album, but Hick's heartfelt vocal inflections somehow elevate this otherwise bland tune head and shoulders above what might be DOA in the hands of other so called "blue eyed soul" artists. And he gets right back to the gospel flavored R&B stuff with the finger snapping, hand clapping, man on his knees pleader "Heaven Knows", the soul dripping heavy from this forceful track.
Not to give you the impression this is quite authentic. It is not by any stretch of the imagination. This is pop music well disguised as R&B and Soul. And on tunes such as Marvin Gaye's "Wherever I Lay My Hat", "Places I've Been", and "Just To Feel That Way" not so well disguised, as these mundane tracks would be right at home on any god awful Micheal Bolten or Richard Marx album from the mid '80's. The difference being Hicks actually has the vocal chops and
the subtlety to make these songs passable as soulful and somewhat engaging pop ballads, never forcing the issue or trying to make more of the cuts then what they are. But if some tracks fall short of spectacular Taylor's experience and professionalism carries him through on funky R&B cuts like the spunky "Give Me Tonight" with its jumpy bass lines and sexy female backing vocals, as well as on the reflective "Soul Thing", which has him wearing his blue eyed soul squarely on his sleeve. The lyrics of most of these songs are cliched at best, the music fairly generic R&B 101.
All is well crafted however, professionally performed, and in the singers case the songs have the sound of a veteran performer trying to make the best of his one big shot, and for the most part succeeding. The album isn't scattered as one might expect of a debut from an American Idol hopeful. Rather it has focus and direction musically and lyrically with most songs focusing on the ins and outs of heartbreak, break ups, and having a good time as a way to heal those wounds. And Hicks even contributes one of his own songs to close the album, along with the Bryan Adams penned "The Right Place". And on the latter Taylor shows his affinity for gospel music comes from the heart and not the desire for a million seller, as he does this tribute to Ray Charles more then enough justice and then some. And its most likely the best pure song on the record.
An album for the non too demanding music fan or an American Idol fanatic, Taylor Hicks big time debut album will most likely do very well, as it has a built in audience ready to snatch it up. Its overtly commercial music making without being crass, soulful but not black, pop but not bubblegum or dismissable. Solid, engaging at times, and ultimately very listenable, Hicks wins you over the same way he won over millions of judges on that bright and shiny TV show not so long ago. Not the best vocalist on the block in a technical sense, he nonetheless is
a seasoned pro and knows how to deliver these tunes with gusto and gumption. If you saw Hicks during his winning season on TV you saw a personable, charismatic, charming performer bringing the audience with him, dancing across the stage like any other clumsy white boy singing black music, and winning over one and all with his everyman personality. And his "first" third album is the same, as it all comes through just as it did coming into our homes via satellite and cable. Not amazing or spectacular, this is middle of the road stuff all the way. But its a road Taylor Hicks knows well, and on this first big shot at the big time he drives down that road straight, narrow, and fully in charge. Not bad for the winner of a glorified high school talent contest.