Long Train Runnin’

Posted on 14 May 2009


If you like your music computer-generated and bereft of soul, steer clear of Taylor Hicks’ latest CD, “The Distance.”  On his third independent release, you won’t find synthesizers or a techno-robotic voice; you won’t even find the ubiquitous box office star aspiring to overnight Top 40 fame.  What you will find on Hicks’ latest outing is a rich artistic collaboration with producers, musicians, and front men who have lent their talents to acts as celebrated and respected as Eric Clapton, Carlos Santana, Squeeze, and Elvis Costello.


Solidly crafted over more than a decade playing tough roadhouses in the Deep South, Hicks’ foundation of musical sensibilities encompasses soul, the blues, jazz, funk, and Southern rock.  Into this musical brew, he now stirs a little country, a touch of bluegrass, Latin rhythms, and a soupcon of hip-hop.  Alternately upbeat and introspective, the mélange reflects both Hicks’ versatility and his commitment to going “The Distance” in his career as opposed to running a twenty-yard dash.  The artist’s voice is the thread of commonality linking and driving each tune.  To a human ear, that voice is a powerful, tender-gritty tenor likened by some to Michael McDonald’s pipes.  To a human heart, it speaks directly with passion and humor.  In the most emotional of the songs on his new collection, Hicks displays incredible control.  Instead of taking the obvious, over-the-top route, his approach, at once low-key and wrenching, renders them all the more poignant.


A musician, singer, songwriter, and arranger, Taylor Hicks shares songwriting credits for half of the new tunes with collaborators such as BB King-Clapton-Faith Hill producer Simon Climie, while other luminaries penned the balance.  These include Paul Carrack, the genius writer, singer, and keyboardist behind Roxy Music, Ace, Mike and The Mechanics, and Squeeze – including “Tempted,” the latter’s chart-busting U.S. single, Nick Lowe, producer of Elvis Costello’s early nerd-turned-punk-god brilliance, and the Grammy-winning Delbert McClinton, a warhorse who has scored consistently high on Billboard’s charts for country and crossover music.  Seasoned and self-taught in acoustic guitar, electric guitar, and harmonica, Hicks allowed other musicians to steer most of the live instruments on the new offerings.  These artists include drummer Abe Laboriel Jr. and bassist Nathan East: veterans of Clapton and Paul McCartney tours.  Launched under Hick’s own label, Modern Whomp Records, the twelve cuts on this CD are, in reality, fourteen; the final, bonus song varies according to distributor (iTunes, Wal-Mart, and Target).  With only so much space to appraise them, this writer will confine her review to the songs that spoke most deeply to her.


“I Live on a Battlefield” is set not in the Iraqi desert but on the landscape of a romance besieged by betrayal and blame.  Like the desert sands, however, the complex tempos and rhythms shift quickly, creating a danceable, disturbing vehicle for Hicks’ inspired delivery: as if he’s been shot out of a cannon to stumble across a war-torn field, dodging fire.  “Battlefield” swings from an opening, Squeeze-pop hook to a bluesy, Marvin Gaye-like melody, evolving into something darker, almost Ray Charlesian.  Spooky keys give way to a scratchy guitar and quickly ascend into more delicate atmospherics.  Then we get Squeezed again and bled back into the blues.  Taylor’s high, plaintive cry inserted thrice toward the end tells that the bullets have found their mark.  Like an aria, the song builds to a crescendo where the guitar finally throws down the glove and riffs big time, anchoring Hicks’ potent, ever climbing vocals.  Josh Smith, the guitarist backing Taylor on his 2007 tour and appearing with him on some 2009 club tour dates, deserves mega-props for his blistering, riveting string work on this Carrack-Lowe cover.


With a relentless, almost militaristic beat beneath a snarling guitar, “Seven Mile Breakdown”‘ warns us from the get-go that we’re going to rock n’ roll heaven.  If you don’t slash air guitar and scrunch your face in a “hurts so good” grimace to this one, you may want to check your pulse.  Penned by Hicks and former band mate Wynn Christian, this no-holds-barred rock-out is a paean to Creedence, the Allmans, and other seminal Southern rock greats.  Achieving rich imagery with minimal lyrics, “Seven Mile Breakdown” is a love song, but not a typical one.  It is an ode to the artist’s push-pull love affair between the never-ending road and the woman waiting for him at the end of it.  And no, I’m not going to tell you who wins the tug of war (life should hold some surprises!).


Although other instrumentalists are credited on the gently cutting “Maybe You Should,” this reviewer hears only two: Tim Carmen’s gorgeous, understated piano and Taylor’s “I’m dying on the inside” vocals.  Listening to this soft heartbreaker as Hicks finally lets go of a vanishing relationship, I feel almost like a voyeur; it is that personal.  At the same time, the song is universal to anyone who has loved and lost.


Despite the fact that “Indiscriminate Act of Kindness” was written by Foy Vance, a musician who hails from Northern Ireland, Taylor Hicks owns this song by virtue of his articulation.  The sparsity of instrumentation balances the singer’s remarkably tender yet deeply profound delivery.  A quietly monumental act of kindness, the story told here is but a parable for a much greater life lesson.  To give it away in written language would rob you and every other reader of the richer experience that can only be achieved by hearing this beautiful song.  Please note that “Indiscriminate Act of Kindness” is available solely on the version sold by Target.


If you are unafraid of the sound of genuine human emotion, give yourself a present: buy “The Distance.”  You won’t be sorry that you did.

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54 Responses to “Long Train Runnin’”

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  3. jackson says:

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