Taylor Hicks: The Real Real Thing

Taylor Hicks’ eponymous major-label debut officially hits stores Dec. 12. This intrepid musical traveler has already immersed herself in the sounds: I have been digging the music all week, thanks to the Internet. Still, there’s nothing like having the hard copy: I preordered a few copies of Hicks’ disc for holiday gifts some time ago and expect them to arrive tomorrow. But since I have already heard the CD in its entirety (save the Wal-Mart-only bonus track of the refourbished Hicks original “Hell of a Day”), and the first single, the vibrant, horn-heavy “The Runaround,” is already in the rotation at Grateful Dread Radio, I feel comfortable sharing an opinion: Taylor Hicks is among the best American Idol releases to date.

All about showcasing the erstwhile bar-band bandleader’s voice and eclectic musical vision — “modern womp” is what he calls his fusion of rock, jazz, blues, swamp boogie, Cajun, hip-hop and, of course, soul — the LP presents varied sides of the artist — some which may alarm Hicks fans devoted to the roots-influenced, old-school Soulman. But trust Taylor to avoid being Bo Biced: This thoughtfully produced, impeccably performed and surprisingly hip collection of inspired covers, reworked Hicks originals and — yes — a couple of the slick pop pieces all but inevitable in a Clive Davis project indeed allows Taylor to be Taylor. It may not be the Taylor some think they know, but apparently, Mr. Hicks is one complicated man. In this instance, “complicated” is a very good thing.

Hicks’ voice is the clear star of the affair — and what a voice it is. Whatever Justin Timberlake has to say on the subject, the Idol champ can more than carry a tune. He is a uniquely talented veteran vocalist (and multi-instrumentalist and songwriter) with plenty of skills, strong performance chops honed over a decade of playing dives and honky-tonks, apparently boundless energy and intelligence, laserlike focus, a musical sense that covers a wide swath of ground, and unlimited potential for even more artistic growth. His baritone is rich and full, his command of many genres impressive, his passion for his art genuine. One feels what he sings whether he’s growling seductively, wailing or sweetly crooning; Taylor Hicks is a singer whose voice can break your heart, rev your engines and lift your spirits, often simultaneously.

Now, the album isn’t perfect. Hicks’ phrasing and diction sometimes goes by the wayside, but that will come in time, and in future, he probably won’t be beholden to Clive Davis and the Idol powers-that-be and won’t have to deal with Diane Warren and Rob Thomas compositions (which he still makes compelling, oddly enough, perhaps by sheer force of his charisma, passion and will). But even when he’s singing pop pap — the Idol coronation piece “Do I Make You Proud,” not included on the disc, is a prime example — the Soul Patrolman takes something slight and imbues it with substance.

Immersing oneself in Hicks’ brand of modern soul music makes for a fascinating, often challenging, and richly rewarding experience. Idol offered a glimpse of what he can do; this album shows us a lot more. I suspect that much more lies in store: Taylor Hicks seems poised to be a talent we will be able to enjoy for the long run, one benefitted by repeat listenings, one who will continue evolving as an artist and will reveal still more sides of himself. Sounds like a journey any true music lover would be a fool to miss.

My recommendation: Buy a copy of Taylor Hicks (or 10), open your mind, forget Idol and give it a few spins. Let it marinate. And then see if you don’t want to become at least a secret part-time member of the Soul Patrol.

Best cuts: Hicks’ own “Soul Thing” and “The Deal,” “Gonna Move” (by the late Paul Pena), “The Right Place” (co-written by Bryan Adams and originally intended for Ray Charles), “Heaven Knows,” “The Runaround”

We celebrate the release by sharing Taylor Hicks’ 12-11-06 The View performance. OH YES, he rocked the house. (Tip o’ the baseball cap to GrayCharles.com)

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