Friday, March 2, 2012

Few Artists Can Fake Being A One Man Band, But James Taylor Does It Fine.

The Good: Good voice, A few interesting re-interpretations of songs, Good mix, Adequate instrumentals.
The Bad: Nothing terribly extraordinary, DVD is "meh," "live" conceits.
The Basics: A decent mix of classic and contemporary James Talyor songs, One Man Band offers some good intepretations of the singer-songwriter's works.

After weeks of listening to little else save the works of James Taylor, it - admittedly - takes quite a bit to get me excited about listening to a new to me James Taylor album. Taylor is a decent singer-songwriter, but his voice gets monotonous after two albums back to back (this is album number ten for me from his library!) and his lack of genuine musical diversity becomes tiresome pretty quickly, especially with his albums of collected works, which tend to be biased toward the earliest parts of his career.

On One Man Band, though, James Taylor manages to present a live concert album that is decent enough to recommend. Unlike Live, on One Man Band, James Taylor presents a decent mix of classic James Taylor songs and his newer works off some of his latest albums. There were even two songs I had not yet heard (or that had not registered with me if I had). Then again, "Chili Dog" is hardly a memorable enough song to bother mentioning.

With nineteen tracks taking up a full 77:53, One Man Band is a decent blend of songs written and performed by James Taylor over his thirty-five year career. The songs on this album are mostly ones he wrote himself, save such obvious exceptions as "You've Got A Friend" and "Shower The People." He provides the primary acoustic guitar on each track as well as the vocals on all of the songs. As well, James Taylor takes a co-producing credit and that level of creative involvement makes this concert c.d. and DVD clearly his production and vision.

Perhaps the nicest thing about One Man Band that separates this album from his "greatest hits" and "best of" compilations is on this album he truly does mix the old with the new. Sure, there are classic hits like "Something In The Way She Moves" (which opens the album), "Carolina On My Mind," and "Fire And Rain," but they are interspersed with new tracks, like "Mean Old Man," "Line 'Em Up," and "Copperline." The album has no real theme other than "This is James Taylor!" But even in that, Taylor manages to surprise and do a few different things.

First, many of the songs are not simply literal interpretations of the prior studio tracks. "Slap Leather" is presented through a megaphone and sounds completely mechanical, lending a whole different interpretation to the song. "Copperline" is presented with an entirely different sense of syncopation and rhythm, which makes for a different sound and feel to the song. After hearing the same live version of "Steamroller" over and over again on other albums, it is refreshing to hear a different version on this album. Taylor actually sounds playful on this live take of "Mean Old Man" and it's nice to hear him having fun if for no other reason than he is presenting something other than bland and mellow.

Largely, the lyrics are the same as he always sings, but it is worth noting that James Taylor - for all of my problems with his smooth, monotonous vocals - has a genuine ability to write. He has some impressive story-songs, like "My Traveling Star." Lyrically, this is an intriguing musical poem with lines like "My daddy used to ride the rails / So they say, so they say / Soft as smoke and as tough as nails / Boxcar jones, old walking man / Coming back home was like going to jail / The sheets and the blankets and babies and all / No he never did come back home / Never that I recall" ("My Traveling Star"). It is rare for an artist to be able to populate songs with actual characters and give them little arcs, but Taylor does it (and well) with this song, like many of them on One Man Band.

Taylor also has a powerful ability to sing about universal emotions, as he does on "Secret O' Life." On that song, he muses on the nature of living and aging, something we all inevitably do. Taylor captures it well when he sings, "The secret of love is in opening up your heart / It's okay to feel afraid / But don't let that stand in your way / 'Cause anyone knows that love is the only road / And since we're only here for a while / Might as well show some style / Give us a smile" ("Secret O' Life"). Despite the rather inane rhyme scheme, Taylor makes a decent musical point and he presents it well.

But not all of the songs are winners. "School Song" is utterly unmemorable - even after eleven listens to this disc. Similarly, one wonders what Taylor was thinking with "Chili Dog" with its inane lines, such as "Make my bed out of wonder bread / Spread some mustard upon my head / I don't want no onions or sauerkraut, mamma / Hold on to the bun baby, work it on out. / I'm a chili dog / I guess you guessed by now / Sure nuf (sic) I'm a chili dog, baby (you and me) / Delicious!" With the massive catalogue of James Taylor tracks in existence it is astonishing to think that he could not come up with a song better than that to pad out this album.

Not that it truly needs any padding. James Taylor enthusiasts will no doubt be psyched by this presentation as it includes James Taylor introducing several of the songs with interesting anecdotes about them.

Instrumentally, One Man Band does not truly live up to its title. Taylor plays the guitar, but he is often accompanied with drums, piano, and some background vocals. Interestingly, he continued to make stylistic choices that allowed him to reinterpret several of the songs through how he used his accompaniment. For example, "Shower The People" has a more stark sound as this version is not overwhelmed with background vocalists. Similarly, "Line 'Em Up" has a different timbre as a result of its backing vocals, at least compared to the album version I heard before this one.

But for those looking for a radical re-interpretation of James Taylor, One Man Band is not it. Despite differences on some songs, many of the songs are the man and his guitar and they sound, well, like the easy listening light rock that they are. One of the nicest aspects of the album is the typical "live" sounds are kept to a minimum!

The DVD is a literal transcription of the concert, so it has only the nineteen tracks from the c.d. version of the event with the same introductions as appear on the audio disc. There are no additional tracks or commentaries. There are, however, four "outtakes." In that section, Taylor stumbles through a take of "Carolina On My Mind," fumbles "Fire And Rain" before talking about a terrible experience he had with the song on the BBC and has make-up applied mid-set. As well, he offers an explanation to "Steamroller" which is actually quite interesting.

Fans of James Taylor will want to include this in their collection and those who are not big fans, this offers a decent enough mix to be a reasonable staple in a collection for one who wants vast diversity. If you need a James Taylor c.d. in your collection, you can do a lot worse than this one and the DVD can be a nice way to kill a couple of hours on a cold, long night.

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


For other album and single reviews, please be sure to check out my Music Review Index Page for an organized listing!

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