Sunday, February 5, 2012

The Later Hits Of James Taylor Makes For Another Compilation That Is Hardly "Greatest Hits!"

The Good: Good voice, A few memorable and catchy tracks
The Bad: A number of songs from Taylor after he moved out of popular and hitmaking songs
The Basics: Properly referenced as "More Singles,"Greatest Hits 2 is a collection of some of the last songs from when James Taylor was truly popular mixed with his newer,less known stuff.

So this month, I am immersed in the music of James Taylor. Yes, it's a pretty narcoleptic month of reviews for me and while I want to reject the theory that I am pandering to readers by reviewing Taylor's works, one of my considerations when choosing Taylor as my artist of the month was "who has a ton of works that will keep me writing and listening for a while?" Figuring out my next musical artist (a female, as I do try to alternate) is becoming a real problem after a month of James Taylor reviews!

What I have learned about James Taylor solely through listening to his compact discs is that he had one of the defining voices as a singer-songwriter in the late 1960s and early 1970s where his style was part of the whole blending of folk, country and rock and roll that defined the pop music of the time. Apparently, his record companies were eager to capitalize on that and didn't believe the bubble would last, which is why they released Greatest Hits in what would end up being a remarkably early portion of his career. Two decades later, Sony/Columbia released Greatest Hits 2. Unlike "Greatest Hits," which was plagued by being short and rather obviously incomplete by the standard of having all of the artist's recognizable hits, Greatest Hits 2 is plagued by being mostly notable works from after the artist has jumped his shark, in this case, popular relevancy. After the first four tracks on Greatest Hits 2, there was only a single song I had ever heard before starting my sojourn into James Taylor's legacy.

With sixteen songs clocking in at 62:26, Greatest Hits 2 is a compilation of previously-released songs by or performed by James Taylor. There are no works that are unique to this album and truth be told, it's a tough sell. Five of the songs are recognizable, another one might be legitimately great in its own right. Of those, three - "Handy Man, "Your Smiling Face," and "Up On The Roof" all appear on the compilation album The Best Of James Taylor. The other three are hardly reason enough to pick up Greatest Hits 2, especially considering two appear on New Moon Shine, an album I recommended already.

Thirteen of the sixteen songs are written or co-written by James Taylor, with the remaining three being covers ("Everyday," "Handy Man" and Carole King's "Up On The Roof"). James Taylor sings all of the songs and provides the backing vocals on a number of the songs. As well, Taylor plays acoustic guitar on ten tracks and penny whistle on one of those songs. As well, James Taylor only takes a co-production credit on seven of the tracks. The net result is a long series of songs that seem less like the work of James Taylor and more the work of a highly collaborative or influential team that has shaped and molded the sound of James Taylor over the two and a half decades represented by the works on Greatest Hits 2.

And largely, this is a period in music where Taylor went from defining pop music with tracks like "Handy Man" and "Your Smiling Face" to having a counter-pop schmaltz in the mid-80s with such unmemorable songs as "That's Why I'm Here" to his successful reinvention as an adult contemporary artist in the 1990s with songs like "Copperline" and "Shed A Little Light." The thing is, Greatest Hits 2 forces the listener to hear a bunch of singles that are hardly ever considered truly great works of Taylor's, like "Everyday" and "Never Die Young" during a period in Taylor's career with he was, presumably, having much more success as a retro act playing "Fire And Rain" to aging hippies (as "That's Why I'm Here" almost explicitly states).

That said, Greatest Hits 2 does contain some well-written songs. "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.

The thing is, the best story-songs on the album definitely come from James Taylor. Most notable among these is "Copperline," wherein Taylor sings about a magical place from his youth with lines like "One summer night on the copperline / Slip away past supper time / Wood smoke and moonshine / Down on copperline / One time I saw my daddy dance / Watched him moving like a man in a trance / He brought it back from the war in France / Down onto copperline / Branch water and tomato wine / Creosote and turpentine / Sour mash and new moon shine / Down on copperline." What makes "Copperline" work so well is that Taylor combines a very strong sense of time and place, with a universal emotion - nostalgia - to define a sense of mood that overcomes one's lack of ability to connect with Taylor's idealized place.

But even Taylor's songs about himself are surprisingly good on the lyrical front. "Her Town Too" seems a bit canned as part of the late-70's, early-80's cultural wake-up to the realities of divorce, but it does something music seldom manages to do which is sing about adult break-ups and divorce. I mean, there are plenty of songs about relationships not working out, but about divorce and the actual implications and impact of that, there are ridiculously few songs. One wonders how many times "Her Town Too" has been mistakenly played at weddings.

But even the overtly "Taylor on Taylor" songs, like "That's Why I'm Here" have a written quality to them that hardly seem as obvious in their self-promotion as today's songs. Unlike, say, Eminem, whose hits all seem to be about what it is like to be Eminem, James Taylor took twenty years to write a hit song about being James Taylor. And on "That's Why I'm Here," he explores the duality of Taylor as guy and Taylor as celebrity with stanzas that play off one another like "Fortune and fames such a curious game / Perfect strangers can call you by name / Pay good money to hear 'Fire And Rain' / Again and again and again / Some are like summer coming back every year / Got your baby got your blanket got your bucket of beer / I break into a grin from ear to ear / And suddenly it's perfectly clear / That's why I'm here."

But for those who do not like the schmaltz of the light rock of the late 1970s and early 1980s, there is little to recommend Greatest Hits 2. Most of the songs do come from that musical quagmire period in pop music, but even those outside that period - like the three tracks off his Grammy Winning Hourglass - bear a lot of similarities to the conceits of that time, most notably the emphasis on vocals over any sense of balance between vocals and instrumentals and supporting vocals that are distractingly present.

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, "(I've Got To) Stop Thinkin' 'Bout That" 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. "(I've Got To) Stop Thinkin' 'Bout That" adds some brass and Yo-Yo Ma accompanies Taylor on cello on two of the "Hourglass" tracks. Ultimately, I allowed a coin toss to knock this thoroughly average album down to just below average and ultimately I think that applies well because anyone looking for truly the greatest hits of James Taylor is not going to find them on Greatest Hits 2.

The best track is "Handy Man" (though "Song For You Far Away" has been consistently growing on me) and the low point is "Everyday."

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 visit my Music Review Index Page for an organized listing.

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