Tuesday, January 31, 2012

When Did "Adult Contemporary" Become Synonymous With "Bloody Boring?" Sometime Before James Taylor's Hourglass!

The Good: One or two lines
The Bad: Boring instrumentals, Unchallenging vocal performances, Nothing timeless in the lyrics, Monotonous
The Basics: Musically, vocally, instrumentally and lyrically boring, Hourglass goes a long way to proving Grammy voters are profoundly uncool and have no clue what is popular at a given time.

I like Adult Contemporary music, if for no other reason that it is probably the most difficult genre to define. Pop music is whatever is popular at the time, Techno is defined largely by instruments and production levels, Classical by the choice of instruments as well, for the most part. But Adult Contemporary, that can be pretty much anything. Sure, it is probably defined somewhere as music that appeals to the over 30 crowd, but how does Billboard determine when it is people over thirty years old requesting songs on the radio or purchasing c.d.s?

Far more often, Adult Contemporary seems to be the dumping ground for musical artists who continue to produce music even though they might never again be considered popular or cool. It's where one-hit wonders go to appeal to their still-loyal fans or people whose music is more prominently featured on Oldies stations as opposed to any format playing anything new. James Taylor IS Adult Contemporary. And I'm saying this as a fan of the genre and as one who appreciates Taylor's works. What I think falls way too flat, though, is his album Hourglass which seems to be more or less the target Adult Contemporary album. But as one who still listens to music that is fresh, new, different and inspired, Hourglass is just plain boring.

With thirteen tracks, clocking in at 54:53, Hourglass is a mix of James Taylor's talents with a pretty impressive supporting cast of backing vocalists and instrumentalists, like Sting, Shawn Colvin, and Yo-Yo Ma. Taylor wrote all but two of the songs and it appears he does the primary vocals on all of the tracks. As well, he provides the guitar and harmonica on most of the songs. As well, Taylor got a co-producing credit on Hourglass, so it's pretty much impossible to deny that this is his musical vision.

Largely, Taylor's musical vision on Hourglass is boring, unimaginative and mostly similar to what we have heard from Taylor on albums that precede this one. Hourglass did earn the Best Pop Album Grammy in 1998 and I can only guess that the Grammy voters were rewarding him for an amazing career in music. The songs are largely repetitive, simplistic and/or safe within the well-established and documented range of James Taylor. By the time one gets to their seventeenth album, one hopes that they might take a few musical risks and stretch some. Alas, Hourglass does not (for the most part).

The one way that it does stretch the expectations a listener might have for James Taylor is in the level of production. Hourglass is a bit more produced, mixing in more instrumentals and a level of production, including increased use of background singers for accent. They are noticeable as punctuation on "Ananas" and more or less carrying the refrain sections on "Little More Time With You" and "Gaia." The increased production and accents by supporting vocalists is almost enough to distract the listener from the fact that Taylor never truly leaves his comfortable tenor range with his vocals.

Perhaps what bugged me most - other than the lazy instrumentals, none of which form a memorable tune - from my first listen to Hourglass was that none of the lyrics truly pop. There is no "Fire And Rain" or "Copperline" on Hourglass. Lyrically, the biggest risks Taylor takes is in singing in French on "Ananas" and singing like an African immigrant (he takes on the affect and repetition more common with lyrics from South Africa, as well as instrumentals that have more of a flavor from that continent) on "Jump Up Behind Me." "Jump Up Behind Me" shows well what Taylor is saying in his song and that is admirable, but the song is still lyrically simple with a wide-eyed vocal presentation for some of the dullest and most repetitive lines on the album, like "This land is a lovely green / It reminds me of my own home / Such children I've seldom seen / Even in my own home / The sky so bright and clean / Just like my home / Kind people as have ever been / Won't you take me back to my own home." If anything, James Taylor's Hourglass has changed my appreciation for Avril Lavigne. Perhaps she just listened to "Jump Up Behind Me," heard Taylor rhyming "home" with itself over and over again and said, "Hey, I can do that!"

If the lame rhyme scheme of "Jump Up Behind Me" weren't enough to disappoint those who generally enjoy the lyrics of James Taylor, the repetitive quality of many of the songs on Hourglass would be. Opening with "Line 'Em Up," Hourglass is a powerful argument against replayability. "Line 'Em Up" repeats the title within the song at least eleven times in a monotonous droning that is a terrible way to open the album. Song like "Little More Time With You," "Up From Your Life" and "Yellow And Rose" are all plagued by repetitive lines that get tiresome rapidly. Indeed, "Up From Your Life" is presented in such a way that the more times Taylor sings the title, the more it sounds like he is falling asleep while singing it!

James Taylor is well known for musical storysongs and Hourglass has some of those, but none of them are terribly interesting. For example, "Yellow And Rose" seems to have the elements of story songs, like a protagonist and a stanza with some dialogue in it, but it lacks a real point. Indeed, when it goes into stanzas with the lines "Down under got the south side / This groovy crazy planet / Watching from the outside / It's as smooth as a gravy sandwich / People play music night for day / One caught the sun in a sekere" ("Yellow And Rose"), the listener is left scratching their head and asking, "so this is a song about living on a planet within the space-time continuum?!" While I applaud Taylor for his use of words like "sekere" (a word absent from my dictionary), the song does seem to lack a point or an expression of a universal emotion that the best of Taylor's storysongs usually have.

The closest Taylor comes on Hourglass to reaching the audience with something powerful and universal is on "Enough To Be On Your Way" and even the lyrics of that are hampered some by the monotonous vocal presentation that makes it sound like Taylor is bored while singing it. At least there, he does have some some decent lyrics when he sings "The last time I saw Alice / she was leaving Santa Fe / With a bunch of round-eyed Buddhists / In a killer Chevrolet / Said they turned her out of Texas / Yeah she burned 'em out down back home / Now she's wild with expectation / On the edge of the unknown" ("Enough To Be On Your Way"). Taylor sings a decent moving on song with that and it is refreshing to hear that he has not completely lost his touch.

But largely, it remains something of a mystery to me as to why Hourglass was as successful as it was. Usually, my big gripe with Taylor's albums are that they are short or that there is a better compilation for his works than the one being presented. In the case of Hourglass, it's just as letdown of boring vocals, simplistic guitarwork, an utter lack of memorable melodies, and unimpressive vocals. His cover of "Walkin' My Baby Back Home" adds nothing to the song and Hourglass hardly impresses the listener with Taylor's abilities.

The best track is "Enough To Be On Your Way," the low point is "Yellow And Rose" (though I'll gladly accept virtually any other track as the disappointing one on this album).

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


For other music reviews, please be sure to check out my Music Review Index Page for an organized listing of all my music reviews!

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