Monday, January 16, 2012

Did They Seriously Think He Was Going To Be A Flash-In-The-Pan? The Greatest Hits Of James Taylor Aren't!

The Good: Lyrics, Good vocals, Decent mix of songs
The Bad: Short, Clearly not all of Taylor's greatest hits, Musically and vocally undiverse.
The Basics: A number of James Taylor's classic songs are put side by side on a good album, but there's a much better Greatest Hits with all of these same tracks available!

Every now and then, on an award show, there is a person nominated for an acting award that clearly deserves the nomination (or even the win) for an amazing performance that they gave, but they are up against seasoned veteran actors and the general thought at the time is "This won't be their year; they are too young to win this award." I've been thinking of that quite a bit as I spin James Taylor's Greatest Hits, a 1976 album that seems to be predicated on the idea that Taylor's first few albums were going to be the best he ever produced and this was pushed to the marketplace to capitalize on his popularity.

Now, frankly, it is hard to look at Greatest Hits, the first of at least four anthology albums I came across, as anything but a joke. Taylor's career has spanned forty years (so far) and to consider only his first seven or eight years his absolute greatest works is somewhat laughable. This is not to say that there are not great works on Greatest Hits, but my ultimate "Not Recommend" comes because there are richer Greatest Hits albums available. In fact, the 2003 release The Best Of James Taylor includes every single track that is on this album plus eight more! So, seriously, why bother?!

With twelve tracks, clocking in at 43:49, James Taylor's Greatest Hits includes many of the most recognizable singles of James Taylor presented in more or less chronological order. Largely these are the works of James Taylor as singer-songwriter, as opposed to simply Taylor as a performer of other people's works. He wrote all but two of the songs - Carole King's "You've Got A Friend" and Holand, Dozier, Holland's "How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You)" are the exceptions. He sings the lead vocals on every track and he plays acoustic guitar on every track but "How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You)." He makes up for it by playing electric guitar on "Mexico," though. Taylor does not take any form of production credit on any of the songs, but one suspects that given his involvement in every other aspect of the album that this is very much his musical vision.

Greatest Hits does include many of James Taylor's recognizable and enduring light rock hits, like "Fire And Rain" from Sweet Baby James (reviewed here!). The ever popular "Shower The People" is present, as are "Carolina On My Mind" and "Don't Let Me Be Lonely Tonight." While some might say this is the fast train to squaresville, I say it's a decent starting point for a career that deserves to have endured as it has. James Taylor comes from a more free musical tradition, one where pop-rock was more mellow and occupied a more nebulous border between rock and roll and country. As a result, tracks on Greatest Hits have quite a bit of crossover appeal to fans of Country ("Sweet Baby James," "Country Road"), folk ("Fire And Rain," "Carolina In My Mind") and rock and roll ("Steamroller," "Mexico"). So, while vocally Taylor might be a little limited or bland in terms of range and style of presentation, musically, he has the ability to mimic many different forms.

This is not to say that Greatest Hits is some masterful work of incredibly different tracks. It is not; most of the tracks sound like a lone man with his guitar singing his heart out on an empty prairie. This is not entirely inaccurate; there is a strong guitar, bass tradition on this album with some of the songs not even having drums (like "Something In The Way She Moves," "Sweet Baby James"). This creates a sound that is softer, more mellow and establishes the trademark smoothness of James Taylor.

In addition to the guitar and bass foundations for virtually every track, Taylor mixes it up by having pianos and guitars together, which is something that is seldom done in music today (usually one has a guitar OR piano as a foundation for the song). Taylor utilizes guest artists for piano to accompany his guitar on songs like "Fire And Rain," "Sweet Baby James," and "Country Road" all of which feature Carole King. There is a pretty intense creativity involved in combining piano and acoustic guitar on a song like "Fire And Rain." The guitar lays down an obvious melody, but the chords from the piano are what drives almost every crescendo in the song and it is so subtle that after years of listening to it, one might not even notice it any longer. It is impressive in its own right, though.

But largely what seems to have allowed James Taylor to survive in the dog eat dog world of popular music are his lyrics. James Taylor is a pretty wonderful singer songwriter and the reason many of his songs have such enduring quality are the lyrics. Taylor, for example, manages to make one of the ultimate love songs without every using the word "love" on "Something In The Way She Moves." On that song, he paints a clear and universal picture when he sings, "Every now and then the things I lean on lose their meaning, / And I find myself careening / Into places where I should not let me go. / She has the power to go where no one else can find me, / Yes, and to silently remind me / Of the happiness and good times that I know, you know. / Well I said I just got to know that: / It isn't what she's got to say / Or how she thinks or where she's been" ("Something In The Way She Moves"). It is clever, descriptive and well-presented.

Similarly, he has wonderful poetics for expressing raw emotions, as he does on "Don't Let Me Be Lonely Tonight." As the title suggests, this song is little more than a plea for a partner to stay and keep the musical protagonist company, but it is solid with lines like "Tell me lies but hold me tight, / Save your goodbyes for the morning light, / But don't let me be lonely tonight. / Say good-by and say hello, / Sure enough good to see you, but it's time to go, / Don't say yes but please don't say no, / I don't want to be lonely tonight." ("Don't Let Me Be Lonely Tonight"). Combines with Taylor's smooth vocals, the lines resonate as an appeal for the simplicity of love and companionship.

But not all of his songs are the kind of obvious soft-rock love songs that make young people cringe when they hear the name James Taylor. No, Taylor manages to be ridiculous and rock oriented when singing about locations. In addition to making soft ballads to places he loves, like "Carolina In My Mind," he makes a celebratory song about "Mexico." These might not be his greatest lyrics of all time given the rhyme scheme of "Oh, mexico / It sounds so sweet with the sun sinking low / Moons so bright like to light up the night / Make everything all right" ("Mexico"), but it offers a very different sound from most of his other songs. Thematically as well, "Mexico" is different because it is more of a rowdy celebration of a location as opposed to a raw emotion track.

On Greatest Hits, "Steamroller," is presented live and it is worth noting that parents who might be looking to get their kids into James Taylor might be surprised that on this album "Steamroller" contains Taylor's raw emotive outburst which does include some swearing. Is it enough to use to steer people away from this album? No, not in my book (most kids have heard swear words before). Instead, the defining reason to not pick this album up is that it is short, not emblematic of the widest range of Taylor's actual hits or abilities and there are other albums that have all of the songs that are on this and more.

The best track is "Fire And Rain," the low point is "Walking Man" which is the epitome of Taylor's boring and predictable songs.

For other former Artist Of The Month selections, please be sure to visit my reviews of:
Break Every Rule - Tina Turner
Opiate - Tool
Greatest Hits - Red Hot Chili Peppers


For other music reviews, please visit my Music Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2012, 2008 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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