Friday, February 10, 2012

Middle-of-the-road Adult Contemporary, October Road Hardly Sets The Skies Ablaze.

The Good: Some decent lyrics, Vocals (as always)
The Bad: Nothing terribly audacious in the music department
The Basics: Average at best, October Road showcases James Taylor's wonderful voice, saying little or nothing he hasn't done better on other albums.

Sometimes, I get the feeling that I am either the last person on earth who is not simply impressed by the singing ability of people who can sing (yet either sing safely in their range or are part of the American Idol-inspired obsession with bland cover songs) or that I'm not riding enough elevators. I write this (and with a straight face) because I seem to be one of the dissenting voices in the international love affair with vocal artists. I've panned albums by Susan Boyle (here!) and Josh Groban not because they are lousy performers, but because all they are trading on on those albums is having a pretty magnificent voice. Vocal artists fall flat with me because the novelty of a great voice - and only a great voice - wears thin after multiple listens. Instead, the artist needs to say (sing) something, have interesting instrumentals and play other than the one-note range they used to make themselves famous. In other words, artists who sing the same thing over and over again in the same way in the same range bore me and I'm happy to fly in the face of popular opinion to expose their works as boring when they are.

Having spent weeks listening to James Taylor's works (more forthcoming!), I've become comfortable with the idea that he is a great songwriter who has capitalized on the style of music that was popular when he got his start, survived about two decades of singing those same songs over and over again while writing some real schmaltzy stuff and is now boxed into the nebulous genre of Adult Contemporary. In the case of James Taylor, Adult Contemporary seems to be defined as nostalgic light pop-rock. Taylor's later works tend to be a mix of blues, folk, country, and light pop of a style that made him a hitmaker in the late 1960s. But he's not singing to the masses on October Road, he's singing to his fans and they're pretty much going to buy this album regardless of what I write.

With twelve tracks clocking in at 51:19, October Road represents a mature effort by James Taylor that continues him raising the level of production on his albums. Taylor is relegated to a weird station on this album (at least by the credits). He wrote ten of the songs (opening and closing the album with covers, "September Grass" and "Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas") and is the primary vocalist on all of the tracks. He is credited with backing vocals on several songs, but he does not get any credit for guitar or piano work. Moreover, he does not receive any form of production credit on October Road. So, how much of the resulting album is actually the vision of James Taylor is somewhat open for debate.

Lyrically, there is no doubt that October Road says what Taylor wants it to, at least on the ten songs he wrote. On this album, Taylor seems to be musing more about aging, the nature of family and places. Like most of his albums, Taylor has songs that clearly define a sense of setting (October Road, "Belfast To Boston") and he ties locations to a sense of nostalgia for seasons or bygone days. He is not singing about love or loss so much on this album and the result is a greater sense of nostalgia and gentle memory than any deeper, more universal emotions.

The sense of desire for good times in a specific place is solidly encapsulated in songs like "My Traveling Star." Taylor's musical narrator sings a fairly straightforward traveling song when he presents, "Watch over all those born on St. Christopher's day / Old road dog / Young runaway / They hunger for home but they cannot stay / they wait by the door, they stand and they stare / They're already out of there . . ." ("My Traveling Star"). Taylor sings well about the predicament of those who have been on the road so long that they end up feeling like they no longer have a home and "My Traveling Star" resonates with anyone who has driven cross country.

But even Taylor's poetry is not a tight as it used to be. Indeed, he seems more expository than expressive on "Whenever You're Ready." In the past, Taylor's strength has been to weave storysongs together with elements poetic and a strong sense of visuals which he has then combines with expressions of whatever emotion he wants tied to the image he has painted with his lines. So, it seems a lot more like "tell" than "show" when he sings "Little one done run out of money now / No it doesn't seem to have a home / Left to fend for yourself in the wilderness / Out there living life all alone" (Whenever You're Ready"). Taylor's song does not inspire the confidence that the final lines about trying to take a risk seem to want it to. Instead, it's basically a song that reads like "if you're down and out, take a big chance." There is no musical character or narrator telling us about the hope or talent the protagonist has to make those dreams come true, just a vague sense of "wish and it will come." I don't buy it.

What does work is when Taylor uses that straightforward sense on "Mean Old Man." Taylor creates a fun and funny little melancholy song with lines like "I was a mean old man / I was an ornery cuss / I was a Dismal Dan / I made an awful fuss / Ever since my life began / Man it was ever thus / I was a nasty tyke / Who was hard to like / I has to misbehave / I did things in reverse / Refused to wash or shave / I was horrid to my nurse . . ." ("Mean Old Man"). It's easy to forgive Taylor his obvious rhyme scheme in this case because the song is so unlike anything else Taylor has ever done, which proves to those still listening that he still has some imagination and cleverness to write with.

Unfortunately, October Road has a tough time sustaining that on the musical/instrumental front. First, so many of the songs sound either like each other or like other songs James Taylor has done in the past. I swear, every time I hear the opening licks of "Caroline I See You," I think it's Taylor's cover of "Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas!" "Baby Buffalo" sounds like a traditional James Taylor "man with guitar" song and the early songs on the album are disproportionately overproduced.

Where he is not sounding like himself, Taylor is presenting some terribly unimaginative stuff. "Raised Up My Family" makes a musical reference to the theme song to "Gilligan's Island" (no, I'm not kidding!) and Taylor's cover of "Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas" does not do anything new with the song. It's simply James Taylor singing it in the straightforward literal way it has been done in the past and it feels like filler at the end of this album.

Vocally, Taylor is in the same rut, er, niche that he has been in for years. He adds a chorus to many of the songs, most notably "Belfast To Boston," but the range of supporting vocals does little to wow the listener. Taylor's smooth, mid-range vocals are part of what clearly defines his style and on October Road, he is clearly not looking to redefine his style.

Ultimately, "Mean Old Man" and the one or two other songs that work on October Road are not enough to sell this album. It holds up poorly over multiple listens not because of some inherent lack of quality, but rather because it is monotonous and predictable. Taylor is not shaking his style or message up with this album and by this point in his career, if he's not going to say something new or in a different way, one might as well just pop in what is recognizable by him.

The best track is "Mean Old Man," the low point is "Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas" if for no other reason than it ends the album on a kind of "ho-hum" finish.

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


For other music reviews, please be sure to check out my Music Review Index Page by clicking here!

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