Thursday, January 26, 2012

Lame James: Why James Taylor Live Isn't Essential To Anyone's Collection!

The Good: Voice, Lyrics
The Bad: Annoying Live sounds, No notable re-interpretations of prior works, Nothing terribly impressive musically/vocally.
The Basics: An average-at-best collection of rather standard interpretations of James Taylor's works fails to sell this collection to anyone but the die-hards.

I will be the first one to admit that “live” albums suffer greatly under my scrutiny. In all honestly, I see “live” recordings as one of two things: a cheap attempt to make money by the artist or studio or a pretty lame attempt to give those who cannot make it to a live performance a chance to see what they are missing. The latter might be noble, save that the Live albums never capture the energy and integrity of a live performance. Artists whose live albums have suffered from my reviews include Bruce Springsteen to Oasis (reviewed here!). Sometimes, live albums just don't do it.

Today, I add the two-disc James Taylor Live to the list of live c.d.s that fail to do anything noteworthy. Unlike some artists who use live albums in place of a "Best Of" album, James Taylor has several "Best Of" compilations and Live does nothing of significance that his other albums and compilations haven't already done. There is a simple reason for this and the reason why it is a struggle for me to flesh this review out to a respectable length after this line: most of James Taylor's songs have a light-rock, acoustic or under-produced quality to them in their studio version. As a result, Live versions offer little that is new to the listener, save the annoyance of hearing people cheering and frankly, no one needs to shell out for these two discs just for that.

On two discs, clocking in at 63:04 and 60:25, respectively, Live is distinctly the style and work of James Taylor. Compiled from performances from fourteen different shows, the discs contain a total of thirty songs, the vast majority of which were written (or co-written) by James Taylor. The songs that are not James Taylor originals tend to be recognizable songs that Taylor covered, like "How Sweet It Is," "Up On The Roof," and "You've Got A Friend." To the best of my knowledge, there is not a single song on this album that only appears on this live compilation.

James Taylor provides all of the primary vocals on Live, which makes sense and he is pictured in the liner notes with his guitar, though he receives no credit in the credits for any instrumental performances. Instead, there is a whole band that fills out his supporting team and enriches his sound. Taylor does not receive any form of production credit on the album, either. Indeed, it is his representative, Peter Asher, who even writes the liner notes mentioning how the album was put together! It is hard to believe, though, that the album came together without any creative control or input from James Taylor.

Over the course of the thirty tracks, Taylor presents some of his best known classics, alongside newer songs of substance, in a live form. Listeners can tell they are Live because of the crowd noises. Sure, most of them sound more or less like the original album cuts, save the differences in instrumentals, so one supposes that the conceit of the crowds cheering at the beginning and end of each track is somehow necessary. A few of the tracks have minor introductions, like "Everybody Has The Blues" which Taylor quietly introduces with a twelve-second story.

Largely, though, these tracks are so similar to the original versions as to make one wonder why Taylor and his team bothered. "Sweet Baby James," which opens the discs is a slow, cowboy ballad, just like it originally was. "How Sweet It Is" is still an upbeat pop track on Live, just as "Shower The People" is a mellow feel-good bit of musical schmaltz. There are so few differences that one wonders who this is intended to appeal to (indeed, the lack of exciting re-interpretation of his own works makes one doubt how interesting one of Taylor's concerts might actually be).

There are some differences, though, but most of them have to do with tempo. "Country Road" is presented as a more solemn song and "Copperline" is also notable slower than the original version in its live presentation on these discs. "Only One" is filled out by a more complete chorus (which somehow dilutes the impact of the lyrics, actually) and Taylor's ode to Martin Luther King, Jr., "Shed A Little Light" is presented such that Taylor's vocals clearly dominate that of the accompanying chorus (which is a change from the studio-produced version). Finally, "Steamroller" has a few additional stutters in it that help remind the listener (again, outside the annoying cheering noises) that this is being recorded live.

Why, then, would anyone bother with "Live?" I suppose if one is an obsessive fan who buys anything James Taylor churns out, who listens to each and every one of his albums constantly on some form of unending loop, Live offers two hours of filler to stretch out hearing the same songs in their studio versions (on the original albums and countless compilations) that much more frequently. Seriously, this is not an extraordinary or indispensable presentation of Taylor's music.

What might draw some people in are the lyrics of James Taylor. Taylor has an amazing musical collection as a singer-songwriter and he has a strong folk sensibility for singing musical storysongs. Arguably, the poetics of songs like "Fire And Rain" made James Taylor and who could dispute the greatness of lines like "Been walking my mind to an easy time my back turned towards the sun / Lord knows when the cold wind blows it'll turn your head around / Well, there's hours of time on the telephone line to talk about things / To come / Sweet dreams and flying machines in pieces on the ground / Oh, I've seen fire and I've seen rain / I've seen sunny days that I thought would never end / I've seen lonely times when I could not find a friend / But I always thought that I'd see you . . .again . . ."? Taylor can write and when he expresses universal human emotions, like the longing to see someone who has died, he is impressive in his ability.

Similarly, Taylor uses his music to actually stand for something, like in "Shed A Little Light." Taylor picks up the torch of Martin Luther King Jr.'s struggle for ethnic equality when he sings "We are bound together / By the task that stands before us / And the road that lies ahead / We are bound and we are bound / There is a feeling like the clenching of a fist / There is a hunger in the center of the chest / There is a passage through the darkness and the mist / And though the body sleeps the heart will never rest" ("Shed A Little Light"). In a time when so much music on the radio is rather repugnant in the way it expresses views of different subcultures, the two genders, and people of different sexualities, it is refreshing to hear a song of hope and promise like "Shed A Little Light."

Not all of the songs are lyrical winners, though. Sure "Walking Man" might be one of Taylor's more recognizable early works, but there is still the mystery of why. I suspect it is not so much for the lame lyrics like, "Walking man, walking man walks / Well, any other man stops and talks / But the walking man walks" ("Walking Man"). The album is not plagued by many of Taylor's songs with predictable rhyme schemes or somewhat pointless stories, but there are a couple, further weakening a fair album.

Instrumentally, Live truly is a continuation of Taylor's usual subtle guitar-driven tracks. Just as his vocals do not strain from his good-natured, smooth vocals within his safe range, there are no radical reinterpretations of any of the tracks that appear on these two discs. Instead, it is a collection of songs that largely sound like their studio-produced versions . . . with crowd noises superimposed upon them!

The best tracks are "Shed A Little Light" (disc 1) and "Copperline" (disc 2), the low points are the unmemorable "Millworker" (Disc 1) and "Walking Man" (Disc 2).

For other James Taylor albums, please be sure to visit my reviews of:
Sweet Baby James
Greatest Hits
New Moon Shine


For other music reviews, please visit my index page on the subject by clicking here!

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