Monday, February 20, 2012

Mud Slide Slim And The Blue Horizon: Sometimes Even Mellow/Boring James Taylor Is All Right!

The Good: Good voice, Some decent lyrics,A few classics, Some decent songs that aren't overplayed to death.
The Bad: Musically limited in terms of production, SHORT!
The Basics: Despite how brief the album is, Mud Slide Slim And The Blue Horizon plays to James Taylor's early strengths and abilities to innovate in folk-rock music!

I have often said in my reviews that if the best of a classic album all appears on one of the group's "Best Of" albums, I will not recommend that album. By logical extension, that has led me on occasion to recommend albums where there are tracks that are decent and do not appear on any of the artist's compilations. Mud Slide Slim And The Blue Horizon is one of those albums. After weeks of listening largely just to Taylor's works, it was refreshing to hear songs by him that were both new to me and held their own against classic, well-known songs that appear on this album, like "You've Got A Friend."

And Mud Slide Slim And The Blue Horizon actually has some classic sounding folk-rock songs that actually make it easy to understand how and why James Taylor was a music-making force back in the day. Songs like "Hey Mister, That's Me Up On The Jukebox" and "Machine Gun Kelly" have virtually all of the elements that make for great James Taylor storysongs that appeal to folk-rock aficionados like me. And this is the only album to hear them on that I have found so far.

With thirteen songs clocking in at a somewhat weak 37:28, Mud Slide Slim And The Blue Horizon is a work that illustrates James Taylor's ability and his ability to collaborate with other artists. Taylor wrote eleven of the songs with Carole King contributing "You've Got A Friend" and Taylor's former bandmate Danny Kortchmar writing "Machine Gun Kelly." Taylor provides the primary vocals on each song and he also plays acoustic guitar on eleven of the songs and piano on the other two. He also provides background vocals on many of the songs.

But this is also a very collaborative effort on Taylor's part. Danny Kortchmar is credited with primary guitars with Taylor on some of the songs and Carole King provides piano on several songs as well. Joni Mitchell appears for background vocals as does the album's producer Peter Asher. Taylor is not given any form of production credit so how much of the sound he produced on this album was out of his hands is somewhat up in the air.

That said, what is wonderful on Mud Slide Slim And The Blue Horizon are the lyrics. While "Machine Gun Kelly" has a great Taylor-esque story-song quality to it and "You've Got A Friend" was one of Taylor's #1 hits, they pale in comparison to some of the songs actually written by Taylor on this album. James Taylor writes musical story-songs as he does on "Highway Song" and "Soldiers." But the superlative one on this album might well be the title track, "Mud Slide Slim. That story-song, despite having some rather silly rhymes tells the story of a recluse through the lines "I'm gonna cash in my hand and pick up on a piece of land / I'm gonna build myself a cabin in the woods / And it's there I'm gonna stay until there comes a day / When this old world starts changing for the good / Now the reason I'm smiling is over on an island / On a hillside in the woods where I belong" ("Mud Slide Slim"). Taylor makes the listener want to escape the world.

Most of the songs, though, are about emotions, beginning with the rousing declaration of the effects of love with "Love Has Brought Me Around" and the sense of melancholy that overcomes the ballad "Places In My Past." Taylor sings about the loneliness of fame in the song that initially struck me as the surprise track of the album. On "Hey Mister, That's Me Up On The Jukebox," Taylor writes and sings about being washed up: "Hey Mister can't you see that I'm as dry as a bone / I think I'll spend some time alone / Unless you found a way of squeezing water from a stone / Let the doctor and the lawyer do as much as they can / Let the springtime begin, let the boy become a man / I have wasted too much time just to sing you this sad song." Far from being a one-hit wonder, Taylor beautifully conveys the sense of an artist who fears they have peaked.

I was actually surprised to learn that I knew one of the songs that was not on the many compilations of James Taylor's that I have been listening to lately. That was "You Can Close Your Eyes," which I originally heard as a cover performed by Linda Rondstadt. The thing is, this might be one of Taylor's perfect ballads with its poetic imagery of ". . . the sun is surely sinking down / But the moon is slowly rising / So this old world must still be spinning 'round / And I still love you / So close your eyes / You can close your eyes it's all right . . ." ("You Can Close Your Eyes"). Taylor has a wonderful knack for imagery that is universal and expressive and on songs like that, he nails it perfectly.

What Mud Slide Slim And The Blue Horizon has is a sense of accompaniment that enriches and complements Taylor's vocals. Instead of being the beautiful, but mundane range of James Taylor's voice, the sound to this album is enhanced by increased instrumentation and extensive, natural background vocals. As a result, this is not simply Taylor singing his storysongs, it is almost a full chorus helping the listener to imagine the places and concepts Taylor and his backing vocalists are singing about.

Similarly, this is not just Taylor at his guitar. While virtually all of the songs on Mud Slide Slim And The Blue Horizon are classic folk-rock songs, they have a very full sound to them. Instead of just being Taylor plucking his guitar, he is accompanied with full percussion and Carole King on piano. This adds a richness to the album that helps Taylor say what he wants to without sounding like he does on virtually every album of his.

In other words, this album offers a lot for those listeners who are tired of the monotony of Taylor's early and middle works and want to hear something both different and familiar. Mud Slide Slim And The Blue Horizon offers listeners the different thing we've heard before or - more accurately - the familiar new thing. Ironically, one has to go back to one of his earliest albums in order to find Taylor innovating a way that works for him!

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
The Best Of James Taylor


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

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