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SOUND CHECK.

TAYLOR HICKS: ``Taylor Hicks'' - Two stars

``It's a whole new education,'' sings the ``American Idol'' winner over some funky second-line rhythms in the opening moments of this uneven debut. Forget the bluster -- Hicks isn't doing much schooling here at all.

Without a strong vocal identity and tethered to a Top-40 producer (matchbox twenty's Matt Serletic) who values badly dated '80s-style synth sweetening over true Southern soul grit, the admittedly hard-working Hicks is being pulled apart in a wind of good intentions.

Nearly all the dozen songs were fashioned (or written) by the Alabama native, ranging from Paul Pena's rootsy, convincing ``Gonna Move'' to a couple of deadly ballads (aim for some credibility, Taylor -- don't ever cover Diane Warren) and an ill-advised ``Wherever I Lay My Hat,'' which Marvin Gaye did best and Paul Young later made a signature song.

The best of ``Taylor Hicks'' are the two numbers he wrote himself, produced correctly, for once, without a lot of studio treacle slathered on. Those songs are ``Soul Thing,'' a classic r&b workout with a nicely unexpected jazz section, and ``The Deal,'' the sort of brokenhearted grinder Hicks seems most comfortable putting across.

Fans only.

-- Fred Shuster

LOU RAWLS: ``Merry Christmas Baby'' (Capitol) - Four stars

LOU RAWLS: ``Christmas'' (Time-Life) - Three stars

Rawls recorded several Christmas albums over his long career, so it isn't surprising, nearly a year after his death, that he has competing releases in stores. The Capitol disc collects Rawls' splendid, swinging 1967 Christmas disc, along with seven cuts from 1993's ``Christmas Is the Time,'' and two songs from his final recording session. That last session is presented in its entirety on the Time-Life disc. Rawls' versatile, soulful voice is fragile but still able to marvelously convey his clear fondness for the fun and warmth of the holiday season. Merry Christmas baby, indeed.

-- Glenn Whipp

VINCE GUARALDI: ``A Charlie Brown Christmas'' (Fantasy) - Four stars

Jazz pianist Guaraldi's soundtrack for the quintessential holiday special has become almost as much a cottage industry as ``Peanuts'' itself. Buyer beware: This reissue has generated some controversy among true believers, both for its remastered sound and inclusion of alternate takes in place of originals. I'd count both as reasons to buy the disc, as it presents something of an alternate version of this Christmas classic as well as including the original cover art and four unheard bonus tracks. The music's charm and eloquence still shine as bright as that Bethlehem star.

-- G.W.

CAPTION(S):

5 photos

Photo:

(1) no caption (Taylor Hicks)

(2 -- 5) no caption (CD covers)
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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Dec 15, 2006
Words:426
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