Saturday, September 3, 2011

James Taylor - James Taylor




James Taylor
James Taylor
Apple  SKAO 3352
1968

One of the local classic rock radio stations here runs a live concert recording segment each weeknight.  I happened to tune in the other night while driving around and heard that the artist was going to be James Taylor.  Perversely I decided to listen a bit even though I can't stand his music.  I could just picture him hunched over the mike, that gaunt bony face, the bald forehead gleaming under the lights as he croaked out his tunes in that lazy drawl of his, the horror, the horror.  I've disliked Taylor since I was a kid back when he and Carly Simon were the royal couple of singer-songwriters.  I still remember my intense chagrin when they covered "Mockingbird" in 1974.  It had been a childhood favorite song of mine, but after Taylor and Simon got through with it, it was ruined for me forever.  I don't even want to talk about his horrible cover of Marvin Gaye's "How Sweet It is."  I don't think Taylor is without talent, but as a performer he is soooo boring.  Nonetheless there on my record shelf sandwiched between Howard Tate and Koko Taylor sits this album.  That fellow on the cover with the long hair, peach fuzz mustache and the psychedelic tie, that is indeed Sweet Baby James.  Who would ever have thought that this pretty boy hippie lothario would someday turn into Ichabod Crane?  There's a cautionary tale for you!  So why do I have this record?  Well if you haven't noticed already, I'm a Beatlemaniac.  I not only collect all Beatle-related vinyl, but I collect Apple Records as well and Taylor's debut album was delivered by Apple.  It arrived in the United States in 1969 a few months after its British release.  Despite my disdain for Taylor's work, I have to admit I do like this record and not just because it has a picture of an apple on the inner label.  Some of Taylor's admirers criticize this record's production, in particular the heavy use of strings but for me that is its saving grace.  I really like Richard Hewson's string arrangements, I think they add beauty and depth to Taylor's otherwise bland songs, they give them a chamber pop type feel.  The songs are linked by little musical interludes most of which are provided by Hewson and I think that is a plus as well, I like when songs blend together seamlessly, I feel like it adds to the groove produced by the album sequencing.  It seems weird to discuss groove with Taylor, if there was ever a guy who doesn't groove it is him, really he doesn't even rock.  His forays into rock on this record, namely "Knocking 'Round the Zoo" and "Night Owl" are the least effective performances on the album.  He sounds feeble on them.  That is unfortunate because "Knocking 'Round the Zoo" is one of his best songs, with striking lyrics describing his experiences in a mental hospital.  His attempt at the blues, "The Blues Is Just a Bad Dream," is just as bad, it sounds almost like a parody.  "Don't Talk Now" is almost rock, it has a riff and some rhythmic drive, but not so much that it strains Taylor's singing ability.  I particularly like the harpsichord on it.  Taylor's real forte is folk-pop as best represented by "Carolina in My Mind" which is my favorite Taylor song of all time.  It has an unusually strong melody for Taylor and his wavery voice enhances the plaintive quality of the lyrics.  It features the most elaborate instrumentation on the record including some guy named Paul McCartney on bass.  "Rainy Day Man" is another fine song with Taylor's strongest vocal on the album.  Being a junkie, its drug theme apparently stirred more passion in him than the love stories on most of the other songs.  I also like "Sunshine Sunshine" which is a sensitive song given added weight by a string quartet and a harp.  "Something In the Way She Moves" is just JT and his guitar, the only unadorned song on the album, but it is such a strong song that it still has considerable power.  "Taking It In" is surprisingly effective sunshine pop.  On the negative side "Something's Wrong" and "Brighten Your Night With My Day" are as boring as most of his future oeuvre.  The traditional song "Circle Round The Sun" would probably be just as dull were it not for the orchestral kick-in-the-pants it gets from Richard Hewson.  This album foreshadows Taylor's future as an artist.  He has a knack for writing personal songs that have considerable resonance but he is an extremely limited performer.  I don't think he's much of a singer and he can't rock.  He is very dependent on his musicians to flesh out his weak sound.  This album largely succeeds in that regard.  If it was just JT and his guitar or a bunch of L.A. session musicians, I doubt that I would ever play it except to hear "Carolina in My Mind."  Recommended for people who prefer Judy Collins over Carly Simon.  

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