First, let me say that Taylor Hicks owes me nothing. Nada. Not a thing.
I used to think that he did, but let me say here (clearly), that I was wrong. You see, four years ago when I rabidly followed Taylor on the cheese fest that is American Idol, I was envigorated by a young man who appeared to beat the odds, defy “the man” and strike a blow for the every day music lover. He was a refreshing throwback to good, “old” music that was pure, un-synthesized, and “real”. He was the everyday musical hero who came to save the day.
After AI, I expected Taylor to remain “all about the music” and continue to defy the musical ogres who control content and dole out the uninspiring pablum derived from electronic manipulation. It was evident from Taylor’s first post-AI release, Taylor Hicks, that there was more influence from those writing the checks than any of us would have preferred. Through the whole time, Taylor seemed to be impersonating some character in a play and while fans largely supported the record, it rang hollow on the charts. It seemed that the daring, soulful style and smokin’ harmonica accompniment was largely absent from the record, leaving listeners, including me, wondering just where Taylor Hicks went.
His live tour was very successful and likely garnished Taylor enough dough to break away from J Records (whether mutual or not), start his own label, and take time for the next record that, maybe…just maybe, would more closely represent what fans so desparately want to hear from the soul man. There have been some detours along the way, including the Broadway role of Teen Angel, that I simply did not agree with because it’s not my vision for the dude. But, really…what do I know?
Oddly enough, Grease appears to have been the catalyst that provided some public acceptance and a bit of a springboard for, perhaps, a redemption of “America’s pick”. Even though I still cringe at the notion of Taylor crooning out Beauty School Dropout, I can’t deny that it’s been good for his career. Hey, it’s a mean to an end, I guess. I have said all along, if the music is good, people will listen and all of the other extra-cirricular activities won’t mean a thing.
That brings us to the release of Taylor Hicks’ new CD, The Distance. I’ve been listening to it for a few days along with some other new music that I’ve been recently turned on to. I wanted to give it a few days to simmer before I commented. First, let me quench your curiosity and say that overall, this CD is MUCH better than the first release.
There’s a definite ease on this record that was absent on Taylor Hicks. While that effort was frenetic, disjointed and a bit out of control, The Distance is thoughtful, balanced and comfortable. It is very reminiscient of his pre-Idol work and shows that Taylor seems to be going “back” to his core, which is exactly what most people loved about him in the first place. This should have been his Idol release, had they been smart. The arrogance of greedy people who believe their “formula” for making a record and maximizing its profit never ceases to amaze me, but we continually see these dinosaurs take unique and genuine talent and turn them into something that is the opposite of what actually makes them appealing, and then scratching their head at its failure.
But, I digress…back to the review.
As I previously detailed, the first single, What’s Right is Right, is a simple, pleasing tune with a great video. It’s currently doing well on AC radio and seems to be a happy medium between what’s expected from fans and what’s accepted by the industry.
But what about the rest of the record? Well, I think I get Taylor. He is not just one style or one genre. Like me, he likes a lot of different types and styles of music and I think that’s what he wanted this record to be. Recently, he did a guest DJ spot on “My Turn” on 100.3 (Newport Beach, CA), no doubt as part of his promotion of this release (which I have to say is 200% better than the crack PR team at J Records and The Firm). Whoever is in charge of promotion this time is doing a fabulous job. Anyway, Taylor’s playlist for the hour long DJ stint is very telling.
St. Dominic’s Preview – Van Morrison
Gasoline Alley -Rod Stewart
How Long – Ace
Rainy Night In Georgia – Brook Benton
You Belong To Me – Carly Simon
Hurricane Water – Citizen Cope
Foggy Mountain Breakdown – Lester Flatt & Earl Scruggs
Where I’m From (Alabama Frame Of Mind)- Shelby Lynne
Life’s Been Good – Joe Walsh
Lowdown in Lodi – Freddie King
Something So Right – Paul Simon
Arc Of A Diver – Steve Winwood
Don’t Think Twice – Susan Tedeschi
I’m In Love – Wilson Pickett
To hear Taylor’s DJ skillz, click on the following player.
Now, I have to say that this was one of the most redeeming things I’ve heard from Taylor in a while. It validated that the dude still has great music taste and still true to it. Many of the songs on the new CD incorporate “sounds” from Taylor influences like Steve Winwood, Keb ‘Mo, Delbert McClinton, Van Morrison, and The Meters. He signed on a quality producer in Simon Climie, who has produced Eric Clapton and who is an accomplished keyboardist and song writer in his own right. In addition, some of Clapton’s touring band performed on the record, including Doyle Brahmall II and bassist Nathan East and was joined by Paul McCartney’s drummer, Abe Laboriel, Jr.
This is a quality record, with quality songs, musicians, and mixing. I like it. I have to say that it’s very entertaining and there are a few really good tracks on it. If I had to pick a favorite, it would be Maybe You Should. Written by Taylor and Nashville songwriter Gary Nicholson (who contributes on several songs), it is a great ballad that reminds me of Bonnie Raitt’s I Can’t Make You Love Me. That could be because songwriter Michael Reid co-wrote both of them. While I love Taylor’s raspy blues feel to this song, I could also see Keith Urban doing this song.
Along with Nineteen, Seven Mile Breakdown (co-penned with Hicks by Spoonful James’ guitarist and pre-Idol buddy, Wynn Christian) and the title-track, The Distance, Maybe You Should has serious Country potential, if appopriately brought to Nashville. Even the blues number, Wedding Day Blues is oddly reminiscient of Garth Brooks’ Country anthem, Friends in Low Places.
While there’s certainly some Country influence, this CD is not a one trick twang pony. One of my favorites, Keeping It Real, is influenced by co-author Delbert McClinton’s wily humor along with a great strider piano, New Orleans sound. It’s also the ONLY track on the CD with a harmonica accompniment. A pity, as I really dig the harp.
There’s also plenty of “soul” in the Nick Lowe cover, I Live on a Battlefield, and one of my all-time favorite tunes, Woman’s Gotta Have It, where he is accompanied by AI buddy, Elliott Yamin. Now, Woman’s Gotta Have It is one on my Music Maven “All-Time Favorite” list, but James Taylor’s 1976 version from his In the Pocket CD which is, in my opinion, one of the best albums ever made — but that’s a different subject for a different day. I really love the meshing of voices between Elliott and Taylor and especially Taylor harmonizing background vocal (fulfilling Simon’s ambition for him), but the beginning of JT’s version is more to my liking. Got me to wondering what a combined version would sound like. Hmmmm….
Once Upon a Lover and New Found Freedom are my “throw away” tracks. I didn’t like the Latino sound of West Texas Sky and I don’t care for it on Once Upon a Lover. New Found Freedom is more of an Idol “coronation” song that just doesn’t measure up to the other songs on the CD.
The marketing plan of three “special tracks” via different store exclusives are in play for The Distance. Wal-Mart offers the Ray Charles’ cover Hide Nor Hair, Target provides Indiscriminate Act of Kindness, and iTunes has Yes We Can, Can. While I haven’t been able to sample Hide Nor Hair, Indiscriminate Act of Kindness reminds me of Taylor’s much heralded performance of the Ray classic, Georgia. It is indulgent and very non-descript. While I know this won’t be popular with the “Soul Patrol”, Indiscriminate Act of Kindness is NOT a song that exhibits Taylor Hicks’ talent nor is it a very appealing cut. However, if you’re looking for a theme song about drug addiction and recovery, this is likely as good as it gets.
On the other hand, the iTunes “special”, Yes We Can is a veritable who’s who of funk & boogie. Written by Allen Toussaint and covered by the likes of soul man, Marc Broussard and The Pointer Sisters, Yes We Can pays homage to the soul/zydeco/funk of the Southern Gulf Coast. While Taylor may be considered the “forgotten idol”, the fact that Ivan Neville, Delbert McClinton and Stax legend, Steve Cropper provide back-up, indicates that “real” musicians “get” Taylor. Even Marc Broussard couldn’t pull that off.
Music Maven gives Taylor Hicks’ The Distance 4 of 5 stars. Buy it.