Wednesday, March 7, 2012

The Debut Of James Taylor Makes Me Yearn For The Familiar, Developed Taylor!

The Good: Some of the lyrics, Moments of vocals
The Bad: Terrible instrumentals, Some poor vocals, Some ridiculous lyrics, SHORT!
The Basics: Early recordings of some of Taylor's best songs are not only unfamiliar,but disturbing on James Taylor,an album that proves sometimes getting a proper studio backing you isn't the best thing.

For those who do not follow my reviews, I have been going through the audio library of James Taylor, one of the premiere American singer-songwriters of modern times. I have reviewed ten of his albums and finally managed to get my hands on his earliest works and as I listen to them, I have to salute people like Peter Asher, who produced the first official James Taylor album, James Taylor. Asher saw some potential in Taylor that is not evident on this album.

I have critiqued Taylor for his limited vocal range and the monotony of his music, but having now listened to quite a few of his albums and made it back to his beginning, I have to say that he did get better with age. James Taylor is a musical nightmare that leads the listener to wonder how Taylor managed to get his musical career up and running with so little evidence of the greatness he would come to possess. It is worth noting, as well, that the best and most recognizable songs on this album, like "Carolina In My Mind" and "Something In The Way She Moves" were both re-recorded at a later point for their use on every compilation that followed as well as most radio play. Hearing them in this early incarnation is actually unnerving after hearing them so many times the other way!

With a dozen songs coming in at 38:24, James Taylor is a poor use of the c.d. medium to be sure. At least two of his early works could have been fit onto a single disc and it is disappointing the producers of the c.d. did not think to offer the listener the value of doing that. This is, however, largely, the musical vision of James Taylor. Taylor wrote or co-wrote all of the tracks, save "Circle Round The Sun," which is a traditional song. Taylor arranged that song, as he did with his instrumentation of "Greensleeves" on the opening track of the album. As well, Taylor provides the primary vocals on all of the songs and plays guitar on all of the tracks. One might be interested to note that Taylor plays electric guitar on "Night Owl" and he is accompanied on the album by none other than Paul McCartney and George Harrison (at least on one track each)! So, this does appear to be Taylor's musical vision, especially when one considers that five of the songs appeared on his original demo album (James Taylor And The Original Flying Machine) .

But it's not good. Songs that he did on earlier works, like "Knocking 'Round The Zoo" and "Brighten Your Night With My Day" are reorchestrated to be ridiculous and noisy and upbeat pop tunes, respectively. The latter track is one of Taylor's best early ballads, but it is presented here as a pop song in a way that does not work with the lyrics. Similarly, The instrumentation on "Carolina In My Mind" is upbeat and dancable as opposed to more cerebral as it was later re-recorded to be. On that track, Taylor is also accompanied by several back-up singers who make it sound like a sugar coated pop song that is just sickly sweet. Similarly, "Rainy Day Man" is overproduced for the lyrics; that song would do great with a starkness that reflected the lyrics.

Indeed, "Rainy Day Man" is possibly one of Taylor's best-written songs because it tackles despair with a sense of realism lacking from many of Taylor's later tracks. It is on this song, that he asks, "What good is a that happy lie / All you wanted from the start was to cry / It looks like another fall / Your friends don't seem to help at all . . . It does you no good to pretend / You've made a hole much too big to mend / And it looks like you lose again my friend . . . All those noble thoughts don't belong / You can't hide the truth with a happy song . . ." ("Rainy Day Man"). Every time I'm in a bad mood now and I hear "Shower The People," I have the urge to blast "Rainy Day Man" because it is pretty much the quiet anthem of the depressed and angry.

But more than just a surprisingly cranky young man, James Taylor illustrated a real talent for love songs here at his beginning. "Brighten Your Night With My Day" deserves a place on his various "best of" albums from the lyrics, if not the presentation (the earlier presentation is much better). On this song, Taylor poetically sings "Daybreak finds you up and alive - just as though you could touch a star / But sunset seems to leave you weary - alone and wondering who you are/ Don't deny that lonely feeling that keeps stealing on you from deep down inside / Hey you can't see that it's no good concealing a feeling it hurts you to hide . . . Girl you can count on my - / Watch those shadows fade away - and brighten your night with my day" ("Brighten Your Night With My Day"). Taylor establishes himself with this track as a musical poet who has some impressive lyrical abilities.

Of course, the best known track on the album is Taylor's classic song "Carolina In My Mind" and one does not have to love the South to like this song. The musing, mellow quality to the lines "In my mind I'm gone to Carolina / Can't you see the sunshine. / Can't you just feel the moonshine / And ain't it just like a friend of mine / To hit me from behind / And I'm gone to Carolina in my mind" ("Carolina In My Mind") instantly creates a mental picture for anyone who has been to the Carolinas. It is a song that resonates even today and Taylor's sense of imagery goes a long way with that. He is a poet.

So how does this album fall so far down that I advise avoiding it (in direct opposition to other reviewers)? It's all the sound of the album. "Sunshine Sunshine" has overbearing violins that drown out Taylor's vocals. This comes on the heels of the screams and shrieking that come at the end of this album's version of "Knocking 'Round The Zoo," which ought to have been enough to sink Taylor's career from the start. Gone is the smooth funk that made this song interesting on his demo album replaced instead with . . .well, noise.

Similarly, "Something Wrong" was an instrumental track on his debut and here there are lyrics, which are one of the poorest examples of Taylor's writing. Moreover, instrumentally, the track was a stark guitar track that might not have been menacing to imply the title, but it was musing and emotive. Here Taylor is accompanied by a string quartet and an oboe and bassoon that destroy any emotional relevancy.

As well, "Taking It In" is a dippy pop song which echoes many of my problems with this album's version of "Carolina In My Mind." There are moments on the song where Taylor sounds like he is simply reading the lyrics to "Taking It In" as opposed to singing it.

Vocally, this album illustrates no real range for James Taylor and producer Peter Asher has a poor sense of balancing the accompaniments with Taylor's voice. He is drown out by instruments or vocals on many of the tracks.

For those looking for early James Taylor, I'd go for his demo before this debut: at least that is different from other James Taylor works in a good way. For those looking for classic James Taylor go for one of his early compilations (like "Greatest Hits") because then you'll at least be getting the familiar and well-liked versions of the songs you like.

The best track is "Rainy Day Man," the worst among these generally disappointing tracks is "Taking It In."

For other James Taylor albums, please be sure to visit my reviews of:
James Taylor And The Original Flying Machine
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
One Man Band


For other music reviews, please be sure to visit my Music Review Index Page for an organized listing of all my music reviews!

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