Taylor Hicks was an unlikely "American Idol" candidate, much less winner. The silver-haired Jay Leno doppelganger snagged "Idol's" fifth title at the ripe old age of 29, barely squeaking past the series' age requirements.
Hicks has since parted ways with Arista/BMG, which released his first album in 2006, and has admirably chosen to release his new album, "The Distance," on his own label, Modern Whomp, on which he re-issued his two pre-"Idol" releases last year.
But if he really is striking out on his own, then why does "The Distance" still sound like an "American Idol" album?
It goes beyond just the style of the songs — to his credit, Hicks mostly sticks with the soul and classic soft-rock sound that he embraced during the show — and which gave his rabid supporters the cutesy nickname "Soul Patrol." The "Idol" feel actually has more to do with the production and content of the album, which seems like major-label marketing at work, right down to the duet with fellow "Idol" contestant Elliot Yamin, "Woman's Got to Have It." (Thank goodness their collaboration was just a song, though — could you imagine those two in a "From Justin to Kelly"-style film?)
The opening track, "The Distance," oozes with slick overproduction: the booming instrumentation, soulful gospel backing vocals, and Hicks' thunderous voice have all been turned up past 11. Equally unsubtle is the song's message that we should set aside our differences to close "the distance" between us: really, can't we all just get along?
Other tracks on the album feel just as much like they're part of a big-label strategy. There's the song in an oddball genre, "Once Upon a Lover": the sultry salsa number might be a catchy tune from a different singer (Ricky Martin, perhaps), but it just doesn't fit with Hicks' persona — although admittedly, his awkward overpronunciation of the word "senorita" is almost charming. There's the tune criticizing celebrity lifestyles, "Keeping It Real," with its not-so-thinly-veiled references to Britney Spears and OJ Simpson.
Most egregious, though, is "Nineteen," the tearjerker of a song about a high school football star who goes off to fight in the war. This song has everything that would draw a tear from even the most callus listener: nostalgia! patriotism! a tragic ending! And that's precisely what makes it so tedious: it's just too obvious. We know where the song is going right from its opening verse, because we've all heard this formula countless times before. And yet Hicks follows it through to its oh-so-predictable ending — football hero turned war hero — without leaving a single detail up to the imagination.
His belting voice is as clear and forceful as ever, but he never pulls back from its constant volume to show any emotional depth or delicacy. Hicks might have released "The Distance" on his own label, but it seems it's nearly impossible to separate him from the bland major-label strategies of the "American Idol" machine.
Written by Express contributor Catherine Lewis