December is an auspicious month as it contains two important birthdays: mine and the Heisei Emperor’s. [Ahem, correction: three.] The Emperor asked for, and received, a grandson. My gift will be Taylor Hicks the album. [The third gentleman gets myrrh.]
The album’s impending arrival tempts one to elegize the past year, to write a melancholic meditation on leaving behind the delights of first discovering Taylor, just as he steps away from the approving embrace of the Soul Patrol and into the critical glare of the general public. I choose another approach to taking stock of 2006.
Let me explain: As the rest of us prepare for our holidays, the Japanese attend numerous bonenkai, or “forget the year parties.” Copious amounts of alcohol (and perhaps some karaoke) assist in the forgetting, but the point is to bid old worries and problems goodbye and prepare as a team for the coming year. At our bonenkai, we do not literally forget the past year, but I suggest that we cultivate in ourselves a stouthearted (and slightly hung over) readiness for what is to come. It is with this attitude that I welcome the coming album and the coming year.
The Symbolism of Ray’s Jacket
How do we face the New Year with stouthearted readiness? First, we look at how Taylor approaches his music. The recent Vibe article by Jon Caramanica stated that Taylor was the “embodiment” of 50 years of popular music. While it is true that Taylor may pick and choose among musical genres and that metaphorical (and actual) sampling is accepted these days, I don’t think Taylor is unique in representing decades of “musical crossbreeding.” This description could be applied to any number of serious contemporary musicians. The fact is all music, all art, is inspired by those who have come before. Harold Bloom, in his book The Western Canon, asserts that the individual artist seeks to create works that struggle with others (past and present) for survival. [Bloom would hate my applying his literary theory to contemporary music, but what the hell.] He writes that a piece of art “…acquires all of humanity’s disorders, including the fear of mortality, which…is transmuted into the quest to be canonical, to join communal or societal memory.” Every serious musician, by learning from and seeking to transcend his or her influences, is looking for a seat at music history’s table. [Wake up; I’m getting to the jacket.]
Everything Taylor has said about Ray Charles, Otis Redding, Joe Cocker, and his other influences relates to his struggle for a place at the table. When the critics attack the new album like rabid dogs, they will be looking for his canonical potential, the seriousness with which he approaches creating music. It’s all about whether the new American Idol is just affecting an inherited artist’s style or if he represents an original synthesis of his musical influences.
Recently, Taylor was given one of Ray Charles’s jackets. Vibe reports he said, “It was all I could do not to fall down and cry like a baby. It was almost like a nod from Ray, like ‘You’re ok.’” Taylor’s desire to be a part of music history is an aspiration that already sets him apart from the common mob of pop stars. He has the intellect, combined with natural and developed talent, to move past his comfortable zone and to push the boundaries of his music (which could be uncomfortable for his nostalgic early fans). His music is going to mature and evolve, in the same way his interpretations of “Georgia” change. He is honored to have Ray’s jacket, but he isn’t going to wear it. And that’s good news for us.
[Note: Taylor’s harmonica playing is a massive topic in itself. I am not commenting on it because I am a coward. Don’t hang around looking for harp porn. Go listen to “Fishwater” (with Widespread Panic) and the track called “When the Saints Go Marching In” (Open Door Café live set).]
“Naked in the Jungle”: Taylor’s Performing Style
Let’s get down to it. My clue that the American Idol guy was going to be very interesting musically came from listening to his version of “Naked in the Jungle” [from the December 23, 2005 live set; if he doesn’t rap, it’s not the correct version]. I’d lurked around the fan boards for a while until June 18, 2006, when I wrote my first posts on Gray Charles about my excitement that Taylor had performed with Snoop Dogg in Birmingham.
Although I was not sure that Taylor had arranged that version of “Naked in the Jungle,” his rap at least signaled his desire to try something new. The appearance with Snoop Dogg filled me with glee because it confirmed “Naked in the Jungle” wasn’t just a fluke, but was something Taylor was pursuing. I had heard him infuse rap into Van Morrison’s funk. Now he was doing the reverse with his harmonica performance on “Gin and Juice” by integrating blues and rap. Rap gets criticized for the shock value of its lyrics, but I suspect Taylor is interested in how rap can be used to emote (more on that later).
Taylor is exciting to me because he can incorporate something like freestyle rap into a Van Morrison song and make it sound like a natural integration. Here again I question the idea that Taylor can simply “embody” 50 years of music. Yes, he (and every person living today) inherited the musical crossbreeding that has come before, but musical synthesis of the future will still have to be created by an artist one song at a time. The challenge is that these future experiments in synthesis must be successful in both theory and performance. I look forward to more of Taylor’s successful brainstorms.
Apart from the rap, “Naked in the Jungle” isn’t Taylor’s most interesting vocal performance because, as a funk song, it is repetitive by design. Certainly, though, it showcases Taylor’s distinctive voice, the elements of which we all know very well: his high natural range that would sound even sweeter than it does if his Alabama vowels did not mellow the timbre; how he roughens up his voice on purpose by falling off clear tones into growls and rasps; and the transitions he makes between singing from his throat and chest. Happily, it is exactly the sweet/mellow sound and tone transitions that make his voice so effective emotionally and stylistically for soul music and any “groovy” offshoots he chooses to pursue.
Many people have noted that Taylor’s greatest strength is how he emotionally delivers a performance, but this quality can be difficult to describe. I’m going to give it a go: Let’s contrast one of Van Morrison’s performances of his own song [from The Philosopher’s Stone, CD 1] with Taylor’s version. Without claiming that Taylor is “better” than Van, I can say there is a difference in emotive quality. For example, whereas Van repeats the lyric “speak out” in sharp staccato, Taylor holds the notes a bit longer and inflects them like the declaration of a principle. Van issues an order; Taylor rallies the troops.
Another contrast between the two versions is revealed in the growls and screeches (so to speak). Van’s growly vocal feels like an unceasing attack. Several times in this version, he chants a series of “ha”s that climb higher and higher, rhythmically careening up, but never pass over the top of the curve, like a tangent heading to infinity. For me, the effect is as bracing as mouthful of Listerine. Now Taylor also growls the lyrics (there are lions and tigers in this song, after all), but at the point where Van is attacking, Taylor is easing into the semi-spoken murmurs of the rap. He seduces with the teasing improvisation (laced with expletives) and then crescendos with three wordless cries. Everything you need to know about the emotive musical styling of Taylor Hicks is contained in the intensity of the climax and release of the third guttural cry.
“Don’t Worry, Be Happy”: Cover Songs Are Our Friends
Yes, the songs on In Your Time and Under the Radar are all charming and addictive. Yes, it was a poignant (two-drink-minimum) Taylor Hicks and LiMBO traveling renaissance fair this summer: Watch him juggle songs and lyrics, now it’s a calypso song, now it’s a blues ballad! Now he’s a fire-breathing harmonica player, stand back! Watch the audience scream the magic words at him (heart’s metallurgy) until their larynges explode. Watch me sulk bitterly that I wasn’t there.
The evil capitalists (and the fickle public) are forcing him to hurry up and move product. We whine for originals, but he says he was offered a treasure chest of golden songs. If you’ve been following my argument so far (he’s ambitious, talented, innovative, has a distinctive voice and he emotes), you must agree it is practically inconceivable that with a quality cover song his performance could fail to cause us internal damage from joy. He has already told us, everything’s groovy.
So what did he have tucked in his underwear drawer in the way of original songs? This is the exciting part. At first I admit I was feeling a little Charlie Brown about the originals. The fact is on one (or two) of his old ditties, I think his own music can be too delicate for Taylor the Performer. We can juxtapose the passion he brings to his interpretations of songs like “Naked in the Jungle,” “Gonna Move” (Oasis Bar), or his versions of “Georgia” and the music and lyrics he has written for himself. The latter sometimes fail to inspire a vocal performance con cojones. For example, the Under the Radar version of “Hold on to Your Love” is catchy, but the lyrics suffer from an excess of cliché (intentionally ironic or not). It doesn’t feel like he has anything to grab onto, and his singing is pleasant, rather than affecting. Good grief! But then all was well, I remembered even scraggly “Hold on to Your Love” can be decorated and enjoyed in a joyous and (ir)reverent live performance by completely changing the style and improvisationally injecting other songs (the Open Door Café set has a good example of this).
Of course, there are the True Grit songs like “Somehow” and “Heart and Soul,” which naturally bring out Taylor’s best qualities. Perhaps he had a few songs like those tucked away for the album. When I watched him sing “Georgia” on Rehearsals.com, I concluded (right or wrong) that Taylor wasn’t interested in simply rehashing his old demo music. “Georgia” is his old vocal gym, the song on which he trained himself to sing. Nevertheless, there he is pushing himself, working to create something new, something particularly Taylor (and not Ray). That performance is a very encouraging indicator of how he will approach writing his new songs. I’m excited to hear an album full of originals on which he had the time and the resources to explore his current musical inspirations. That will come. But for now, the golden cover songs are our new best friends.
Bonenkai: A Fresh Start
Let’s return to our “forget the year party.” Our boy is all dolled up, lost a few pounds, gained some confidence and some cash, has shown us he has the talent, plus a sense of sardonic humor and a stubborn streak: now we get to hear the results. The pre-AI music and the LiMBO appearances suggest he has the potential to blow us away, but some of us are anxious because we are holding on to our cherished impressions of him. Instead of mourning the passing of the old year, at our party we shall toast the new work to come. Our bonenkai tradition will be to let go of our thinking that we love the old Taylor the best. To hold on too firmly to the old is to court disappointment, as any of our favorite artists’ influences and tastes are constantly changing. It’s called creativity. Chin up Soul Patrol: in return for our willingness to let go, we shall be treated to more profound pleasures, pleasures that come from the amalgamation of what has come before with the delights of the new.
Please join me in a cheer for our boy, using the Japanese phrase that means “do your best and persevere”: