Like many others, I first heard Taylor Hicks perform on the American Idol stage. I remember being charmed by his easy stage presence and was excited to be hearing something different in a competition that is criticized for churning out more and more of the same.
No one could argue there was something special about this guy who refused to dye his gray hair or compromise his preferred style of music, and I have to think it was that difference and commitment that saw him sail through to win that year. I impatiently waited for his debut release from the music-machine conglomerate, 19 Recordings Limited. They would put out his self-titled, post-Idol album on the Arista label, only it didn’t seem to stay true Hicks and soon fell out of my iPod's rotation. It didn't surprise me that they'd tried to mainstream his style or that the compromised sound didn't hit.
Soon after, it was announced that Hicks and Media 19 had mutually agreed to part ways. I thought this would be best in the long run for him. It would clear the path for him to exercise his creativity and I eagerly anticipated his next release.
Taylor Hicks' new album, The Distance, released this coming Tuesday, March 10 is said album. Though it does seem to ring a little more true to the Hicks I first fell in love with, I can't help but feel like there is still an attempt to mainstream his sound, to make him more pop or hot 100. The debut single, released in January of 2009, "What's Right is Right" peaked at number 25 on the adult contemporary charts and is a nice, easy listen. While I would say it was the right choice for a single — it does have the catchiest chorus of the collection — it falls a little short in the soul/R&B department.
"New Found Freedom" is closest to that sassy, blues feeling I expected. I can hear a Motown influence, with a tinge of gospel color in the song's harmonious background vocals. There is also sincerity to the lyrics. I feel as if the song is coming from the heart and that with this song he's being true to himself. "Keeping it Real" opens with promise, but as it progresses, the delivery just falls short. It's a cute song, with an infectious hook, but not even the infusion of the harmonica at the end can give this a true soul sound.
Then there are songs like "Nineteen," an attempt at a patriotic song of loss. It comes across as insincere and almost righteous. "Wedding Day Blues" lyrics are corny and can't be ignored despite the true, blues feel to this track. While these two are really only momentary disruptions to what is for the most part a solid album, the distraction is enough to downgrade the entire listening experience.
Other highlights include the surprising "Once Upon a Lover" with its Latin/swing feel and "Woman's Got to Have It" featuring fellow Idol contest Elliot Yamin. It seems disingenuous to give this nod to Hicks, however, since it's Yamin's smooth voice, a direct contrast to Hicks', that breathes life into the song. The track is the album closer, and definitely leaves the listener on a high note.
Taylor Hicks fans will enjoy this album, without a doubt, as will those who favor adult contemporary that is tinted with R&B, but if it's a soulful, blues experience you're looking for, you may want to pass on The Distance.
Check out that first single, "What's Right is Right" below: