Review: James Taylor, “The Essential James Taylor”
In the annals of American popular song, there’s a place reserved for James Taylor. For 45 years, the Boston-born troubadour’s distinctive and soothing baritone has been a reassuring voice bringing light to the darkness with his nakedly emotional, often autobiographical music. Sure, recording technology has changed a bit over the years, but Taylor’s style now is essentially the same as it was then – applying that warm voice and shimmering, precise guitar to those direct, melodic and deceptively simple songs. This stripped-down, back-to-basics style has served Taylor well, and it lends a consistency to The Essential James Taylor. Taylor’s first 2-CD compendium, it’s drawn from his Warner Bros., Columbia and Hear Music catalogues, only overlooking his 1968 debut for The Beatles’ Apple label. (“Something in the Way She Moves” and “Carolina in My Mind,” both first recorded on Apple, are included in their fine Warner Bros. remakes for 1975’s Greatest Hits; that classic compilation’s live recording of the blues take-off “Steamroller” has also made the cut here.)
This new anthology has been produced by Bill Inglot. No stranger to Taylor’s discography, Inglot remastered 2003’s excellent single-disc primer The Best of James Taylor. The first disc here chronologically surveys the artist’s career from 1970 to 1977, and opens with the very first song heard on Taylor’s first American LP: the title track of Sweet Baby James. There weren’t too many country waltzes opening rock records in 1970, but the lullaby disarmed, and hooked, listeners. “Sweet Baby James” didn’t wear its three-quarter-time sophistication on its sleeve, but quietly established Taylor as a rather special musician.
Remarkably, and equally subversively, he took the bleakly beautiful “Fire and Rain” up the charts. A song of stunning depth even with its initial impact long dulled by familiarity, “Fire” was plain-spoken poetry. Its opening lines were shocking and sad (“Just yesterday morning, they let me know you were gone/Suzanne, the plans they made put an end to you…”), with the song permeated by angst and awareness of the finality of it all (“But I always thought I would see you again…”). Many of its lyrics were starkly autobiographical, as with the reference to “sweet dreams and flying machines in pieces on the ground.” (Taylor’s first band, with Danny Kortchmar, was The Flying Machine – not the “Smile a Little Smile for Me” group of the same name.) But Taylor had a dramatist’s gift of understanding, that the most specific writing is usually also the most universal. “Fire and Rain” struck an emotional chord. It still does. “Fire” also shows off another Taylor trademark: the instantly-memorable opening guitar riff. These “vamps” – think “Mexico,” “Fire and Rain,” “You’ve Got a Friend” – have become integral parts of songs themselves.
After the jump, we have more on JT!
The Essential offers a nicely-curated mix of big hits and less familiar gems. In the latter category is “Long Ago and Far Away” from 1971’s Mud Slide Slim and the Blue Horizon. The title was previously used by Jerome Kern and Ira Gershwin – tough acts to follow, no? – but Taylor’s song was another intensely personal one. As on “Fire and Rain,” Taylor sang of the song itself: “Where do your golden rainbows end? Why is the song I sing so sad?” Joni Mitchell accompanied him on prominent harmony, and she was also among the singers on the album’s No. 1 hit: “You’ve Got a Friend.” Doesn’t everybody want a friend like the one described by Carole King in this song? Taylor’s only Pop No. 1 to date, it helped propel Mud Slide Slim to a No. 2 chart berth. It was kept from the top spot by…Carole King, and her Tapestry album, on which Taylor played and “You’ve Got a Friend” was featured in her rendition. It was all in the family: Taylor played on Tapestry, and King on Mud Slide Slim. “You’ve Got a Friend” began a successful string of covers proving Taylor’s versatility and strength as an interpretive singer: Holland-Dozier-Holland’s Motown chestnut “How Sweet It Is,” a slowed-down and reinvented ballad version of Jimmy Jones’ “Handy Man,” Danny Kortchmar’s “Honey Don’t Leave L.A.,” the Buddy Holly favorite “Everyday.” All are included here.
Taylor could be sensual and romantic, as on “Don’t Let Me Be Lonely Tonight,” or purely joyous, as on “Mexico,” with Graham Nash and David Crosby joining him for the fiesta. Whatever the style, though, Taylor’s heart shines through. The sweet sentiment of the infectious “Shower the People” might have been treacly from another artist’s voice, but felt natural and honest coming from Taylor. (The 45 edit of “Shower” is available on iTunes; it might have made a nice appearance on CD here.) The same could be said for the effusive “Your Smiling Face.” The singer-songwriter could also successfully inhabit another’s voice, as he demonstrated with 1979’s “Millworker.” The incisive character study was written for Stephen Schwartz’s troubled Broadway musical Working, and offers a tantalizing might-have-been for Taylor’s career had the show taken off. Taylor wrote from experience, but also frequently tapped into something much greater.
“Millworker” opens the second disc of The Essential, a tour of highlights between 1979 and 2007. Taylor scored his last major pop hit with 1981’s “Her Town, Too” on which he warmly harmonizes with kindred spirit J.D. Souther. This melancholy soft-rock slice-of-life sits comfortably alongside such later-period songs as 1987’s “Never Die Young,” 1991’s nostalgic “Copperline” and 2002’s “Caroline, I See You.” If Taylor’s deep appreciation and respect for traditional music had to be underlined, there’s even a performance circa 2000 of Stephen Foster’s “Hard Times Come Again No More,” performed with Yo-Yo Ma, Edgar Meyer and Mark O’Connor. Live performances from 1993’s Live and 2007’s One Man Band are sprinkled throughout the second disc, including “Country Road” and “Secret o’Life” (1993) and “My Traveling Star” and “You Can Close Your Eyes” (2007). Though the original hit single version of “Country Road” is missed, anyone who’s attended a Taylor concert can attest to the connection the singer makes with the audience when he performs “Secret o’ Life” in a live setting. That comes through here.
On any compilation such as this, it’s impossible to include everything. Notable omissions include, unsurprisingly, the duet “Mockingbird” with Taylor’s ex-wife Carly Simon, and surprisingly, “Up on the Roof,” the beloved Carole King/Gerry Goffin song that Taylor truly made his own and remains one of his signatures today. The artist’s Grammy-winning Covers album isn’t represented. Many might have expected this set to expand the 2003 The Best of James Taylor, the first and only JT compilation to include material from Apple, Warner Bros. and Columbia, but The Essential takes a different approach. That set included “Up on the Roof,” the Apple recording of “Something in the Way She Moves,” the original studio versions of “Country Road” and “You Can Close Your Eyes” (the former in its single edit), plus “Only a Dream in Rio,” “Golden Moments” and a new track, “Bittersweet.” At two CDs’ length, this entertaining chronicle of a life in song makes room for fan-favorite deep cuts not on that volume instead. As such, it’s a fine companion volume for Taylor fans.
The Essential James Taylor, with new liner notes from Anthony DeCurtis and fresh remastering by Vic Anesini, is the most comprehensive (indeed, the only) 2-CD assessment of the troubadour’s music. It should tide fans over until he decides to re-enter the studio and make more original music. Chances are, those next songs, should they ever arrive, by James Taylor will be cut from the same cloth as those on these two discs. And we wouldn’t have it any other way.