Friday, January 13, 2012

Whoa! Where Do I Get Off Not Recommending An Album With "Fire And Rain?!"

The Good: Voice, Some of the lyrics
The Bad: SHORT!, Instrumentally simple, Portions that are lyrically simple, Vocally simple
The Basics: On c.d., one of James Taylor's earliest c.d.s, Sweet Baby James underwhelms in terms of length and content.

There are certain facts about the history of pop-rock music that I accept. For example, pop music (by definition) is whatever is popular at any given time. For example, right now, hip-hop and rap songs tend to dominate the pop charts alongside the latest endeavors by contestants from American Idol because that is what the populace that has the disposable income to buy music is purchasing. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, there was a significant crossover in pop music from folk and country sources.

It is in this time period, that listeners get the likes of Simon & Garfunkel, Carole King, and Joni Mitchell. These were the last years of significance of Elvis and the Beatles and pop music gave way to smoother sensibilities before exploding into the funk and disco movements. And at the turn of that decade, there was James Taylor. I pick up my musical education of James Taylor's works with Sweet Baby James, his second album. I think it is important, here at the outset, to acknowledge that I accept as deserving that James Taylor may now be considered a national treasure and his musical career is a pretty extraordinary one.

I always seem to say that right before I cheese people off with a contradictory line, so I'll just say flat out Sweet Baby James is not a terribly inspiring compact disc and it - on its own - is a poor use of the medium.

With only eleven tracks, clocking in at a pretty pathetic 32:02, Sweet Baby James is a poor use of the compact disc medium as it purely and faithfully replicates the original record recording without providing either another whole album or any sort of b-sides from relevant singles from the album to give it any additional value. It's short length is problematic for the medium. But what is on the compact disc may largely be attributed to singer-songwriter James Taylor. Taylor wrote ten of the eleven songs (only "Oh! Susanna" was not written by him and yes, it is THAT "Oh! Susanna."). As well, he provided lead vocals on all of the tracks and laid down the primary guitar tracks as well. He is not credited with any form of production credit on the album, but considering that the studio let him get away with "Suite For 20 G," a song largely attributed to his contractual obligation being met and thus him getting his promised $20,000, one suspects that he had quite a bit of creative control over the musical direction of the songs on the album.

That said, Sweet Baby James suffers as a somewhat boring sounding pop-rock album that exists along that murky border of the time between rock, pop and country music. The songs on the album frequently sound like exactly like what they are: a man and his guitar at a microphone with mellow accompaniment that hardly rocks the hall. Instead, James Taylor sings with a folk-rock musical sensibility without the extensive story-songs (at least on this album). As a result, he is largely singing simple poems that express a fundamental emotion like loss ("Fire And Rain," "Sunny Skies") or longing ("Anywhere Like Heaven," "Country Road").

As for the fundamental question of what the songs sound like, Taylor's Sweet Baby James (the album) comes from a time when artists had a much easier time working outside the box because there was less of a box to be stuck in. Taylor's songs generally are simple guitar-driven tracks with vocals featured prominently without a Josh Groban-like sense of showboating to them. As a result, Taylor is able to get away with songs that come from a musical tradition of blues ("Oh Baby, Don't You Loose Your Lip On Me," "Steamroller Blues"), extend to a classic country sound (Sweet Baby James, "Anywhere Like Heaven") and break into a more recognizable pop-rock sound ("Suite For 20 G," "Fire And Rain"). The album - in context - works because there is a creative diversity to it.

Out of its historical context, in the pantheon of all music of all time of all types, this is a remarkably boring and terribly average (at best!) album. It is mature and slow and quiet and, yeah I'll beat this into the ground, there's just not much of it. But there is a stark quality to the sound of the album that seems less a function of production and more a sound of limitation by the time. Sadly, considering what other artists like the Beatles or Elvis were doing (or even the Bee Gees!) at the same time, it cannot be blamed simply on the technology of the time.

What makes me equivocate so much on an album that I've listened to over twenty time and am so sick of I'm ready to toss the disc out the window? It's the lyrics. Sweet Baby James is the album that contains "Fire And Rain," easily one of the best pop-rock songs of all time. After all, Taylor's writing chops are cut on the lyrics that range from the articulate and expressive to the completely universal when he wrote, "You've got to help me make a stand / You've just got to see me through another day / My body's aching and my time is at hand /And I won't make it any other way / 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" ("Fire And Rain"). This might well be one of the best songs that anyone who has recently lost a loved one should avoid hearing.

There are a few folk-rock sensibilities contained on this album (very few) and they come in the form of musical storysongs like "Sunny Skies." "Sunny Skies" is a somewhat dippy track that illustrates some of Taylor's less developed lyrics with lines like "Sunny skies weeps in the evening / It doesn't much matter why / I guess he just has to cry from time to time / Everyone's leaving / And Sunny skies has to stay behind / Still he knows how to ease down slow / Everything is fine in the end / And you will be pleased to know / That Sunny Skies hasn't a friend." Taylor has a number of truly great lyrics, even on "Sweet Baby James;" "Sunny Skies" contains none of them.

In my arsenal of James Taylor albums I have been listening to the last few days, I have several compilation albums of Taylor's works. I find myself uncommonly astonished that one of the best tracks on Sweet Baby James appears on none of them. The song I am referring to is "Anywhere Like Heaven," which is an absolutely incredible song and the only reason I can find to purchase this album (every other worthwhile song on this album is available on other albums). For those who may have listened to Taylor's works only on the radio or on his "best of" or "live" albums, one of the more impressive songs you would be missing goes "When I walk along your city streets / And look into your eyes / When I see that simple sadness / That upon your features lies / If my spirit starts to sink / It comes as no surprise / Its been a long way from anywhere / Like heaven to your town, this town" ("Anywhere Like Heaven"). And wow, I am impressed by it!

James Taylor has a great voice. He delivers smooth, tenor vocals on each and every track on Sweet Baby James. This makes it an album that is not ideal for listening to while driving at night. Taylor's vocals are hypnotic and dull. There is almost no vocal diversity in tempo or range between tracks. Despite how little I like the lyrics to it, I found myself glad in my last listens to Sweet Baby James to hear "Streamroller Blues" just to hear Taylor try something different vocally. At least on that track he tests his range.

It is remarkably average and its use of the medium is poor (if it were paired with another, even equally boring, album, it would be more of a value). But even the strength of "Anywhere But Heaven," which cannot be found anywhere else was not enough to get me to bump this into "recommend" territory.

I'm saying that "Anywhere Like Heaven" is the best track because it is exclusive to this album as far as I can find ("Fire And Rain" is probably better, but it's on at least five other albums!). The low point is "Sunny Skies."

For other, former, Artist Of The Month selections, please be sure to visit my reviews of:
Rumours (2-disc version) – Fleetwood Mac
Hotter Than July - Stevie Wonder
American Favorite Ballads (boxed set) - Pete Seeger


For other music reviews, please visit my Music Review Index Page by clicking here!

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