Saturday, February 25, 2012

Oh My Gosh, Is This James Taylor High?! He's So Good! James Taylor And The Original Flying Machine!

The Good: Great, funky sound
The Bad: Terrible use of the medium (short), Fairly ridiculous lyrics
The Basics: Barely a c.d. at all, this album precedes James Taylor's solo endeavors and offers a glimpse into a very different artist, even if it's not all that impressive.

So, I was on my third or fourth listen through James Taylor And The Original Flying Machine when I remembered a little bit of Taylor's biography. Some time, long ago, I remembered hearing that "Fire And Rain" was written as a reaction to one of Taylor's episodes with heroine and that it was in response to one of his friends dying of an overdose. For the first time, it occurred to me that perhaps some of the music Taylor wrote and performed was done while he was still an addict. And hearing the drastically different sound of this album from all of the others I had heard of Taylor's works, I thought, "Oh my gosh, this could be it!"

James Taylor And The Original Flying Machine is largely funk and it's surprisingly good and surprisingly groovy. Taylor performs with a small band, most notably Danny Kortchmar, who does pretty extensive backing vocals on almost all of the tracks and this album sounds like no other James Taylor work. So, my instinct is to suggest that this is the result of him being in a very different frame of mind than he was in for all of his other albums.

With only nine tracks clocking in at an anemic 22:53, James Taylor And The Original Flying Machine is little more than a demo disc for James Taylor. Made in 1967, the album is a fairly literal collection of takes from a studio session for James Taylor. There are seven songs, one of which is on the album twice (so only six unique tracks) and the other two tracks are "Intro" versions of "Knocking 'Round The Zoo" and "Brighten Your Night With My Day." Called "Intro" on each of these two songs, they are little more than false starts or joking about the song or the album itself. Unlike what appears on such things as "live" albums of concert recordings, these little interstitials are not intended to increase the listener's appreciation of the song by discussing where it came from or such.

Largely, this is the musical vision of James Taylor at that point in his life and career. Taylor wrote five of the songs (that is to say, all but one of the songs on the album) and he does the lead vocals on every song, but the last one, which is Kortchmar taking the lead vocals for Taylor's song "Knocking 'Round The Zoo." Oddly, it appears that Taylor does the vocals on the Kortchmar-written song that precedes that last track, "Kootch's Song." It is little surprise that these songs do not appear on any of the several "best of" albums for James Taylor's works.

James Taylor and Danny Kortchmar created the album and after a little research, I was able to find out that this is, indeed, Taylor's very first demo album. I have no information on his status as an addict when this was made, however, it was re-released as a James Taylor album after he had his first two successful albums, even though it was all completed before them.

The first track, "Rainy Day Man" is in some ways an anti-James Taylor track. Lyrically, it is the antithesis to songs like "You've Got A Friend" and any other chipper Taylor songs. On it, he sings such things as "It looks like another fall / And friends they don't seem to help at all / Now when you're feeling kind of cold and small / Just look up your rainy day man / It does you no good to pretend / You made a hole much too big to mend / And it looks like you lose again / . . . All those noble thoughts, they don't belong / You can't hide the truth with a happy song . . ."("Rainy Day Man"). For those of us who are of the mindset that James Taylor can get awfully schmaltzy, that last line seems to be what Taylor forgot as he became successful. Otherwise, the song is very much an obvious James Taylor track with him and his guitar singing his heart out. There is a noticeable increase in backing vocals during the title of the song when that is repeated. Strangely, this one is not included in his compilations when it is so different from everything else he sings.

After two false starts (it's called an "Intro" on the liner notes), James Taylor sings his funky song "Knocking 'Round The Zoo." When I say funky, I mean traditional funk. Yes, James Taylor with some serious funk to him. The song is bass-driven, includes a guitar that is plucked so it sounds like a sax or trumpet and the vocals are deeper than Taylor's usual range. On his album "One Man Band," Taylor discusses his song "Steamroller" and he describes posers who were white suburban guys singing songs that were more prevalent in the black community at the time. Hearing "Knocking 'Round The Zoo," a song about being trapped in a zoo on display in the different range and sound than most of his other stuff, one suspects that before Taylor made parody of such posers with "Steamroller," he was one himself.

This is followed by "Something's Wrong," a mellow guitar and drum instrumental track that is more reminiscent of watching clouds float by on a windy day than creating an atmosphere of tension or problems. In other words, musically, it hardly seems like something is wrong based on this song.

Then comes "Night Owl," another lyrically simple early James Taylor track. Like the other songs on this album, this one seems more funk-based than most James Taylor songs. This, however, utilizes very simple rhymes like "Well a fish it kind of likes the water / It's just where it's bound to be / And a monkey kind of digs bananas / So it lives in the top of a tree / But my eyes are made for darkness / So the night is right for me" ("Night Owl"). The song is a lot of repetition of a very simple (two line) refrain and it does not so much say anything other than "I am awake at night." It's not a terribly inspiring or interesting song. But it does have more upbeat guitarwork than most James Taylor songs.

There is another intro, several false starts for "Brighten Your Night With My Day." The song is begun at least twice and the band can be heard goofing off in the background. What follows the false starts is the actual song, which has a more a cappella feel to the beginning followed by a remarkably traditional James Taylor feel good song. "Brighten Your Night With My Day" sings about the benefits of love and the effect a more cheery disposition can have on a partner. The musical narrator tells the woman he loves that he can cheer her up and Taylor and Kortchmar harmonize impressively, despite the song not being outside Taylor's range. It is on this track that James Taylor mimics (or foreshadows) Simon & Garfunkel.

"Kootch's Song" is the last original track and it was also the only song written by Danny Kortchmar. It is presented as a straightforward opening light pop song that is utterly unmemorable. The album is closed off with Kortchmar singing "Knocking 'Round The Zoo" and it sounds almost identical to Taylor's audio presentation of the song.

Ultimately, most of the album is short, a poor use of the c.d. medium, but I'm recommending this below-average disc. I like to do that from time to time. After listening to a ton of James Taylor albums, it is refreshing to me to hear something from him that sounds so different. Given a choice between his next mellow pop-rock album and spinning this below-average disc, I'm actually leaning to spinning this more. It's not because it is good, but what little there is of it sounds good, but rather because it is so different and it represents a whole different sensibility in Taylor's work than who he became.

The best track is "Brighten Your Night With My Day," the low point is "Kootch's Song."

For other James Taylor albums, please be sure to visit my reviews of:
Sweet Baby James
Mud Slide Slim And The Blue Horizon
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 visit my index page on the subject by clicking here!

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