Wednesday, February 15, 2012

The Best We've Got So Far, The Best Of James Taylor Comes Close.

The Good: Good voice, Recognizable hits, Some decent lyrics
The Bad: Not all the best of James Taylor.
The Basics: Perhaps the best collection available today, The Best Of James Taylor is all of Taylor's classic works with a few new, decent songs.

Someday, James Taylor will stop making music. He will quit the business and pundits and musical historians and A&R folk will go through the massive body of works he has created or performed and they will create the definitive "Best Of" James Taylor. It will include all of his recognizable songs alongside the best of his newer works. Ideally, it will be a true "best of;" the works that were most original, best written and best performed, not just the hit singles. The Best Of James Taylor in stores is not that album or set of albums.

Instead, The Best Of James Taylor is essentially all of Greatest Hits and the first few tracks from Greatest Hits 2. So as to not make this a complete waste for the loyal fans who no doubt own most of James Taylor's albums, The Best Of James Taylor includes the new song "Bittersweet," which is not exactly going to light the world on fire with its greatness. In fact, if Taylor was looking to express some measure of the diversity of his career, "Copperline" or "Mean Old Man" ought to have made it onto this disc in addition to or instead of "Bittersweet."

With twenty songs clocking in at 70:54, The Best Of James Taylor is another collection of Taylor's singles more than true "best works." 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 four of the songs - Carole King's "You've Got A Friend," "Up On The Roof" by King and Goffin, Blackwell and Jones's "Handy Man," and Holand, Dozier, Holland's "How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You)". 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." 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 The Best Of James Taylor 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. His newer songs, like "Only A Dream In Rio," "You Can Close Your Eyes" and "Bittersweet" all have more production elements to them than the earlier, more familiar works.

This is not to say that "Best Of" 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.

"Handy Man" is a legitimate hit of James Taylor's from one of his most popular phases and by that point it was not because he had particularly audacious vocals. No, he represents well the lyrics of Jones and Blackwell when he sings "I'm not the kind to use a pencil or rule / I'm handy with love and I'm no fool / I fix broken hearts, I know that I truly can / If your broken heart should need repair / Then I'm the man to see / I whisper sweet things, you tell all your friends / They'll come runnin to me" ("Handy Man"). The catchy, if repetitive, refrain follows a decent story-song about a guy who has the romantic magic touch.

But "Bittersweet, the lone new track on The Best Of James Taylor is hardly going to light the world on fire, either from its lyrics or the music that accompanies it. Instead, it is surprisingly schmatlzy and obvious, with a rhyme scheme that is not as impressive as Taylor usually has. With its lines like "First it's cold baby / And then there's too much heat / One minute I'm up in heaven / And the next I'm down in the street / Coz we got a love / That's bittersweet / I said we got a love / It's bittersweet / Sometimes when I'm with you / It's like you're just not there / When I look into your eyes /I see that thousand yard stare" ("Bittersweet"), Taylor is mining in territory he used to dominate quite well without saying anything especially new.

Yes, we've heard it from Taylor before and I suppose my hope was that if he was selling this album on the strength of a new song, that new song would knock our socks off. Instead, I kept wondering where "Copperline" was.

This is not to say James Taylor cannot sing, because he certainly can. In fact, Taylor has an amazing voice that is nearly impossible to criticize on the technical aspects. Where Taylor falls down some is in any expression of his range. Taylor has a great mid-range vocal ability and smooth presentation that he is undeviatingly loyal to on this album. In fact, "Only A Dream In Rio" might not be the most popular James Taylor song of all time, but it is absolutely emblematic of his vocal stylings and consistency.

Instrumentally, it is only in the later songs where James Taylor's music stretches past the limits of being one man, his guitar and minimal percussion. But the truth is, Taylor defined that sound so what the album needed was the best of the tracks that embody it and we have that here. In the end, this time, it's just enough.

The best track is "Fire And Rain," the low point is "Long Ago And Far Away."

For other James Taylor albums, please be sure to visit my reviews of:
Sweet Baby James
Greatest Hits
New Moon Shine
James Taylor Live
Greatest Hits 2
Appalachian Journey (with Yo-Yo Ma)
October Road


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

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