In the years since he finished as runner-up on the second season of “American Idol,” Clay Aiken has carved out a niche as a singer of singerly songs — an artist more famous for how he sings than what he sings.
His first post-”Idol” album, 2003′s “Measure of a Man,” topped the charts with its original material written by established industry songwriters. Then came an album of Christmas cover songs, “Merry Christmas With Love,” in 2004. Then more covers — 10 out of 14 tracks — emerged on 2006′s “A Thousand Different Ways.” “On My Way Here” in 2008 featured mostly original tunes, including one partially penned by Aiken.
Aiken’s more a singer than a songwriter, which is fine — and which explains why his latest offering, “Tried & True,” is another collection of covers, these from the ’50s and ’60s. If you’re going to sing someone else’s songs, why not pick the best ones you can get your hands on, right?
At this point in his life and career, though, autobiography might trump acumen. Since his last album was released, Aiken has undergone two major changes in his personal life: he became a father and came out as gay after years of dodging or flat-out refusing to answer questions about his sexuality.
How did those revelations make him feel? How have the changes in his life impacted him? A few original songs, even with songwriters guiding the music and lyrics, might have provided some illumination. Perry Como and Herman’s Hermits tunes, not so much.
But back to the album at hand, which is as earnestly and mellifluously sung as any of Aiken’s previous work. Which is to say it’ll be manna for Aiken fans (the irrepressible Claymates) and kryptonite for his detractors. A departure — aside from a change in record labels — this album is not.
Aiken’s at his best when the power in his pipes — which are in fine form throughout the disc, despite occasional lapses into a Cowardly Lion-level vibrato — matches the emotion he coveys as he sings them. On “Tried & True,” those elements synch best on four songs.
“Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You,” which was a ’60s hit for Frankie Valli, is a groovy tune for Aiken, too, punctuated by Sinatra-style instrumentation. The acoustic setting of “It’s Impossible” gives the song a slightly softer, more modern sound than versions by Perry Como and Elvis Presley. His take on “Moon River,” which includes guitar work from Vince Gill, is lush, theatrical and appealing.
Particularly pleasant to the ear is a jazzy re-imagining of “There’s a Kind of Hush,” in which Aiken seems to burst with a horn-infused joy. Also, his imaginative re-working of Roy Orbison’s “Crying” is enhanced by truly lovely guest vocals by Broadway singer Linda Eder. It’s a shame that Aiken sounds a little like Carol Burnett as Tarzan near the end of the track.
Indeed, not everything’s a day at the bandstand on “Tried & True.” The instrumentation — which seems to be far from an afterthought, unlike what you’ll find on many singer-focused albums — occasionally sounds so antique that it seems to be swiped from a ’30s or ’40s Disney flick. Prime offenders here: The lush, loungey “What Kind of Fool Am I?” and “Unchained Melody,” which was a crowd-pleaser for Aiken on “Idol,” but a song this time around whose instrumentation is so strong that it drowns out his vocal.
The most potent misfires on the album, though, come when Aiken’s tone doesn’t match the tune. His take on “Mack the Knife” suggests Macheath went on a jolly summer stroll rather than a crime spree. And Elvis’ “Suspicious Minds” is utterly devoid of edge in Aiken’s hands.
Despite its flaws, “Tried & True” is an album of classic songs sung well. And maybe the insight into Aiken’s life some listeners might seek isn’t entirely absent: In “What Kind of Fool Am I?” he seems to sing a wink into the line “Why can’t I cast away this mask of clay and live my life?”
But maybe that’s just a rhetorical question.
Photos courtesy Universal Music Group