Sunday, January 22, 2012

Sing It James! James Taylor's New Moon Shine Reminds Listener How Great James Taylor Is!

The Good: Good voice, Decent lyrics, Fairly rich sound
The Bad: One or two weak tracks
The Basics: A generally wonderful album with new classic songs by James Taylor, New Moon Shine revitalizes interest in this adult contemporary artist!

James Taylor is the artist I am getting into this month and truly immersing myself in. I have eight c.d.s in my docket now and more on the way. One might wonder why I am going through Taylor's library when it appears I have not particularly enjoyed his albums, Sweet Baby James (reviewed here!) and Greatest Hits (reviewed here!). The truth is, I have nothing in particular against Taylor and I have a lot of respect for the endurance of his career. He might well be THE artist to define Adult Contemporary by and he has an amazing voice and a decent ability as a singer-songwriter.

So, I am actually quite pleased to be able to write a positive review about a James Taylor album and that album is New Moon Shine. This album came out in my childhood during the brief time my family had cable television and I recall seeing the video for the first single off New Moon Shine, "Copperline," on VH-1 quite a bit and enjoying it. I'm not sure what it says about my childhood when I wouldn't flip to MTV for the scantily clad people in videos but would rather watch the smooth-singing James Taylor sing a story about a place I'd never been. I suppose that's captivation and on New Moon Shine, Taylor has the ability to captivate.

With a dozen songs, clocking in at 47:57, New Moon Shine, is largely a collection of original works by singer-songwriter James Taylor. Taylor wrote or co-wrote all of the tracks, save two. One of those was a cover of Cooke's "Everybody Loves The Cha Cha Cha," the other was "The Water Is Wide" and it was co-arranged by Taylor. James Taylor provides the primary vocals on all of the songs as well as playing the acoustic guitar. James Taylor is not given any form of production credit on New Moon Shine, but given the reverence with which Taylor's works are treated - even back in 1991 when this album was released - it is hard to imagine that this might not be Taylor's musical vision being expressed.

Largely, this is a memorable outing because of the aspects that are most distinctly James Taylor's. The chief among the selling points would have to be the lyrics. Taylor has written an album that is largely centered on places and the ties people have with them. "Copperline" is a nostalgic work that is clear and evocative of a place from the mythic ideal childhood that is painted beautifully with lines like "Warm summer night on the Copperline / Slip away past suppertime / Wood smoke and moonshine / Down on Copperline . . . First kiss ever I took / Like a page from a romance book / The sky opened and the Earth shook / Down on Copperline." One of the things I like about the song, even now, is the whole sense that the past is dead and while we might revisit the location (as the musical protagonist does in the final lines of the song) it is never the same as it was in our memories. Taylor has a wonderful realism in his work that is beautifully expressed.

This realism allows Taylor to rail against the Military-Industrial-Congressional Complex on songs like "Slap Leather," but he does not surrender the idealism that he opens the album with. As a result, fans are treated to Taylor's tribute to Martin Luther King Jr. ("Shed A Little Light"). Whatever his feelings of nostalgia or realism for the state of the nation, James Taylor also has a great sense of hope for the future when he sings "Let us . . . recognize that there are ties between us / All men and women / Living on the earth / Ties of hope and love / Sister and brotherhood / That we are bound together / In our desire to see the world become / A place in which our children / Can grow free and strong" ("Shed A Little Light"). It is a refreshing song of hope and James Taylor lays it out quite clearly and articulately, making it more or less undeniable that we are all bound to a common fate. Not enough artists sing about that sort of thing.

Even fewer can pull of a science fiction folk song, but James Taylor does that on "The Frozen Man." It's a pretty common concept in science fiction novels and television, but the idea of a cryogenically frozen person being reanimated to discover all that has changed is otherwise - to my knowledge - absent from music. Yet here James Taylor lays it out musically with the straightforward lines, "My brothers and the others are lost at sea / I alone am returned to tell thee / Hidden in ice for a century / To walk the world again / Lord have mercy on the frozen man / Next words that were spoken to me / Nurse asked me what my name might be . . ." ("The Frozen Man"). It is that level of originality and innovation that has been missing from virtually every other James Taylor album I have listened to. Here he is imaginative and clever and it is fun to hear what he comes up with because songs like "The Frozen Man" are different and help illustrate Taylor's talents as a musical storyteller.

Most of the songs on New Moon Shine are characterized by James Taylor's smooth, mid-range vocals. On this album, he goes a little and actually holds notes, like on "Oh Brother." But more than that, Taylor mixes his vocals up with more supporting vocals than on many of his classic albums and easily recognizable tracks. "Oh Brother" has very standard pop backing vocals and "Shed A Little Light" has a chorus behind James Taylor that makes it sound more like a Gospel song. Conversely, he manages a stark quality on "The Water Is Wide" where he robs his voice of any affect. It's a series of long, held notes that is unlike his usual articulate songs and comes across more as a wail (in the best possible way).

"The Water Is Wide" is an exception on New Moon Shine. Most of the songs have vocals with Taylor that are articulate, clear and more verbal-oriented as opposed to the raw emotions of that final track.

One of the other things that separates this album from most other James Taylor albums and recognizable singles is the amount of musical accompaniment alongside Taylor's acoustic guitar. "Copperline" has light percussion and I would have bet a pedal steel, but none is credited. Taylor is backed up with violins, synthesizers and pianos on various tracks. "Down In The Hole" is a rather produced pop-rock track that has a range closer to rock and roll than most of Taylor's songs, just as "(I've Got To) Stop Thinkin' Bout That" has more of a country or bluegrass twang to it. "Everybody Loves To Cha Cha Cha," which admittedly was not written by James Taylor, has a very classic dance sound and he makes it work for him.

New Moon Shine is one of those albums that makes for a good companion to a "Best Of" album for people who like to have something different to go with an compilation for an artist whose radio tracks they enjoy. New Moon Shine is a light pop-rock album that is diverse in sound and styles making for a more rich James Taylor listening experience than many of his albums and is one that is bound to satisfy those who have an open mind about recognizable artists away from their recognizable works.

The best track is "Copperline" (though "The Frozen Man" impressed me quite a bit) and the low point is the unmemorable "Like Everyone She Knows."

For other, former, Male Artist Of The Month selections, please be sure to visit my reviews of:
Seal II - Seal
Actually (2-Disc version) - Pet Shop Boys
Aladdin Sane - David Bowie


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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