A lot of folks were pissed when Taylor Hicks won American Idol earlier this year, and I don’t blame them. There were certainly better singers that got voted off before him. However, I can also see why he won the competition. Granted, Taylor’s not much of a looker—what with being prematurely grey and a little bit paunchy. He won’t be winning any modeling competitions (although, seriously, which Idol other than Carrie Underwood would be capable of that). However, unlike many of the finalists, who preened for the camera like they’d been practicing for their coronation their whole lives, Taylor seemed to be in the competition solely because he loved music. At least that’s the impression I got. As a veteran of the bar band scene and an independently released recording artist, Taylor appeared (and sung like) someone with a little bit of life experience and natural, unaffected soul.
So that leaves the obvious question—what would Taylor Hicks sound like once he was put through the American Idol pop star paces? Well, while the production is undoubtedly more professional that it would have been had Taylor been left to his own devices, Taylor Hicks does a pretty good job of keeping Taylor true to his personality. It’s good-natured and earnest, and there are no major concessions to the state of pop music 2006. They didn’t make him an alt-rocker like Bo Bice or Chris Daughtry, they didn’t go the crooner route like with Clay Aiken, and they didn’t dumb him down and turn him into a pop airhead, although, somewhat strangely, only four years separate Hicks from Justin Timberlake.
The folks at 19 Records did hook Taylor up with some good songs. Musically, this album sounds like it walked in from the late ‘80s/early ‘90s. While none of this fits on pop radio circa 2006, this stuff would have sounded perfect in between “Higher Love” and “Sweet Freedom” back in 1986. While elitists who don’t recall mid-‘80s pop fondly will turn up their noses, I actually dig a lot of these songs.
Hicks’ points of reference are soul legends. You can obviously tell that the man listened to a lot of Ray Charles and Marvin Gaye growing up. Hell, the rollicking “Heaven Knows” actually marries the groove of Brother Ray’s “What’d I Say?” to the melody of Marvin’s “Ain’t That Peculiar”. While it would definitely be a stretch to suggest that Taylor’s in that league vocally, he’s got an appealing burr in his voice that recalls the best of blue-eyed soul singers from Michael McDonald to Joe Cocker.
Producer Matt Serletic (most famous for bringing out matchbox twenty) does a bang up job here, with no Pro Tools, no vocal enhancements, and barely any synthesizers. Listening to this album, you can picture Taylor belting these songs out in a sweaty bar somewhere, and two of the tracks (“Soul Thing” and “The Deal”) are written by Hicks and date back to his bar-band days.
While there are a couple of songs (including Rob Thomas’s “Dream Myself Awake”) that fall on the bland side of the affair, Taylor’s album holds up strongly throughout. Highlights include the Motown-esque lead track “The Runaround”, a smooth cover of Gaye’s “Wherever I Lay My Hat” (which compares favorably to the ‘80s version made by fellow blue-eyed soulster Paul Young), and the gospel-inflected closer “The Right Place” (which, astonishingly, was co-written by Bryan Adams). He even manages to handle the dance-inflected number “Give Me Tonight” with aplomb. Even when the songs aren’t up to standard, Taylor is well up to snuff vocally. He definitely knows how to make an emotional investment in a song without overdoing it. There are plenty of vocalists (including more than a couple of former “Idol” contestants) who could stand to use a tip or two from him.
While the hipster-types will hate on sight, Taylor Hicks is a solid album of meat-and-potatoes music. With a smart blend of rock & soul not seen since the days when Hall & Oates ruled MTV, the grey haired dude with the spastic dance moves has actually made one of the better albums to sprout from the American Idol machine.