These days everyone seems all too eager to beat up on Taylor Hicks. Many people have forgotten the reasons why he won the ultra-competitive fifth season of American Idol. His victory has been written off as some kind of accident, as if he wasn’t a great performer. To the naysayers, I say this: he was, and still is, a fantastically talented singer/songwriter. That much is in obvious evidence on The Distance, Hicks’ newly released second album.
At its best, The Distance makes up for the shortcomings of 2006’s Taylor Hicks, which was released shortly after his Idol win. The earlier album, though not without shining moments, was the result of a production team unsympathetic to Hicks’ strengths.
Now, with producer Simon Climie on board, we can hear Hicks’ as nature intended — no synths, drum programming, or ill-advised Ray Charles samples (all of which were heard on the debut). The Distance isn’t as raw as it could’ve been, with some too-smooth production on a few tracks, but by and large this album should put to rest doubts about Hicks’ skills. At least for those who give it a fair shot.
The first half of the album aims to cover as much stylistic ground as reasonably possible. The title track, the first of seven Hicks’ songwriting credits, is a slice of heartland rock that wouldn’t sound out of place on a John Mellencamp album. A non-partisan plea for setting aside political differences in favor of working towards a common goal, “The Distance” is a great opener and a highlight of the album.
From there on, the mood shifts frequently, touching on soul (“What’s Right Is Right”), funky pop (“New Found Freedom”), country (“Nineteen”), and Latin rhythms (“Once Upon A Lover”). “Nineteen” would make an especially good choice as a future single, with its timely theme of paying tribute to a fallen soldier. Hicks’ powerful reading of this song might help it find a home on the Country charts.
With “Seven Mile Breakdown,” Hicks’ is in his element. He tears through this bluesy number with passionate conviction. “Maybe You Should,” a ballad co-written by Hicks and Mike Reid (who wrote the classic “I Can’t Make You Love Me”), is even better. This somber ode to a failed relationship stands out as the single best track on the album. The vocal is absolutely restrained, yet it conveys his resigned heartbreak vividly. In a recent interview, Hicks said he considers this one of his best songs. He has every reason to be proud of it.
There are bonus tracks available on The Distance, depending on where it’s purchased from. The iTunes version contains a cover of the funk classic “Yes We Can.” This song, written by Allen Toussaint and first recorded by Lee Dorsey way back in 1970, is the weakest of the three available exclusives. Hicks offers up a strangely dispassionate interpretation that won’t make anyone forget the Pointer Sister’s definitive version from 1973.
Much better is the Wal-Mart bonus, a cover of a largely forgotten Ray Charles hit, “Hide Nor Hair.” It’s a fun song that allows Hicks to pay tribute to his hero. Best of all is the Target exclusive, a stellar reading of Foy Vance’s “Indiscriminate Act Of Kindness.” This seven minute, sparsely arranged tune displays the full range of Hicks’ vocal skills.
Though the sales figures haven’t been particularly strong so far, it should be noted that The Distance is an independent release. Without much promotion the album is struggling to gain attention. Keep in mind though that this time last year many were declaring Hicks’ career dead in the water. He lost his record contract and was all but abandoned by Idol.
Yet since then, he’s played to sold-out theaters on Broadway and all around the country in Grease, released an excellent compilation of pre-Idol recordings (Early Works), and now has a new album on Billboard’s Top Ten Independent chart. As he sings in one of The Distance‘s best tracks, “I live on a battlefield.”
Taylor Hicks is a survivor and is obviously bound and determined to continue earning a living doing what’s in his blood: making music.