Friday, March 16, 2012

Good, But Short, James Taylor, Gorilla Satisfies, Though It Doesn't Use The Medium Well.

The Good: Decent vocals, Good instrumental sound, Some decent lyrics
The Bad: SHORT, Very limited vocal sound
The Basics: A decent James Taylor outing brought down some by the shortness of the album and the vocal monotony, Gorilla is still worth listening to!

As I near the end of my "studies" of the works of James Taylor - and debate getting in the last three or four albums of his that I have not listened to and reviewed - I find myself both strangely glad I made the effort and obviously glad to be moving on to other artists who I hope will be more interesting and diverse in their works (any suggestions on who I should devote next month to are welcome!). James Taylor has the lyrics and the voice, but there seems to be a pretty significant stretch in his career where he was essentially producing the same type albums with himself, his guitar and his smooth, bland vocals.

And while that might be enough for some, it's not enough for me. Taylor's later works reflect a greater sense of polish and production, but some of them lack the lyrical greatness of his early works and he seldom escapes his rather safe range with his vocals. The result is an artist whose career of radio hits seems to be a study in bland niche-sinking that degenerates into an adult contemporary career of strange musical experimentations that lack the punch or significance of songs like "Fire And Rain." Gorilla seems to be the album where he abandoned some of his musical experimentation (along with producer Peter Asher) and settled into a mellow, easygoing sound that helped to define the music of the 1970s.

With only eleven songs, clocking in at 39:04, Gorilla is a pretty lousy use of the c.d. medium: any two early James Taylor works could fit onto a single c.d. and that Warner Brothers Records opted not to give fans any sort of additional value by doubling up is disappointing. Still, this does appear to be mostly the work of James Taylor. James Taylor wrote all but two of the songs - his highly popular "How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You)" is a cover and "Wandering" is a traditional song, though Taylor arranged it. Taylor provides the lead vocals on all of the songs. As well, James Taylor plays several instruments on that album and while he expands his instrumental repertoire to include the ukulele on this album. He is more prominently featured using acoustic and electric guitars as well as high string guitars. He also is credited with providing more vocal harmonies than he did in the past.

Taylor is accompanied instrumentally or vocally on Gorilla by the likes of Carly Simon, Crosby and Nash, and long-time collaborator Danny Kortchmar, who only plays Taylor's works on the album, not writing his own for Taylor to use. As well, Randy Newman appears on "Lighthouse" on the hornorgan. Strangely, Simon's only contribution is vocal and only on "How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You)." Taylor is not given any form of production credit and someone else is actually credited with string arrangements on the album, which seems odd. Still, it does seem to be largely the musical vision and talent of James Taylor.

And Gorilla is all right. Were it not for the short duration of the album, it would have been an above-average outing for James Taylor. On c.d., though, it is disappointingly short and it seems underdeveloped as a result. That said, Gorilla is actually one of Taylor's more fun and upbeat albums. Starting with the party song "Mexico," the album is easy listening light pop-rock that pays tribute to "Music" itself before presenting the straightforward feel-good swing singsong that is "How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You)." Taylor includes the usual storysongs with "Wandering," Gorilla and "Lighthouse." The rest of the album is padded out with songs that focus on essential human emotions and Taylor makes them sound good and he writes quite poetically.

Take, for example, "You Make It Easy." This is a seduction song where a lonely man contemplates a one night stand with a woman and Taylor creates a scenario that virtually every married couple has gone through when he writes and sings "Heaven knows I love my woman / We're just bound to fuss and fight / And I wind up on this barroom stool / Buying drinks and keeping tight / But you know that I've never done / What's come in my mind tonight / You make it easy / For a man to fall" ("You Make It Easy"). Taylor does not justify his narrator's thoughts of straying from fidelity, but he paints a picture that is fairly universal and adequately expresses the frustration a loving couple goes through that leads often enough to one partner doing something stupid.

Fortunately, Gorilla is not an album all about cheating on one's wife. Taylor sings about the utter mystery attraction can be on "I Was A Fool To Care." After acknowledging that the object of his affection might not be right for him in a rational sense, Taylor writes "I'm still in love with you / Had I listened to the grapevine I might have had my doubts / But I did my level best just to block them out / 'Cause love is so unwise / And love has no eyes / And it took awhile for a fool to see / What his friends were on about" ("I Was A Fool To Care"). Taylor adequately uses the song to explore how beautiful and irrational love can be and he performs it with a precision that makes it clear he knows just what he is talking about!

Similarly, Taylor does something few pop-rock or folk-rock artists ever do: he explores simple anger. He does not sing a song about being angry at someone for something on "Angry Blues" but rather writes and sings about being overcome with rage irrational and he does it quite well. Instead of trying to repress it, he explores anger in the lines "If I had my way / I'd be sitting on top of the world / I can't help if if I don't feel so good / When the anger comes in him / There's no place for a man to hide . . . I ain't looking for details / Won't you just give me a clue / Oh Lord what am I gonna do" ("Angry Blues").

Lyrically, Gorilla (the album) is not bad. Taylor writes generally well and has something to say on virtually every subject in terms of emotions, relationships and just singing telling stories. Similarly, this is not a bad album vocally. Taylor does stretch his range slightly on "Music" when he goes a little higher, but otherwise, this album's vocals are characterized by the mellow, somewhat banal vocals that are present in "How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You)." Taylor has a wonderful, smooth voice that is easy to listen to and is both clear and articulate. It is also fairly boring and because the album is so short, it holds up poorly over multiple relistens.

As well, after "Mexico's" upbeat instrumentals, Gorilla settles into a pretty mellow, light rock sound that is most often characterized by James Taylor and his guitar. There are one or two piano-driven tracks, but mostly this is a pretty straightforward man and his guitar sound and that, too, drags some when one listens to the album over and over again repeatedly.

Still, Gorilla is worth the listen, if for nothing else than the sheer number of decent tracks on this album that are not on any of the compilation albums. In fact, this is one of Taylor's stronger musical outings and it just leaves the listener unsatisfied that there isn't more to it than the few short tracks that appear.

The best song is "I Was A Fool To Care," the low point is the unmemorable "Sarah Maria."

For other James Taylor albums, please be sure to visit my reviews of:
James Taylor And The Original Flying Machine
James Taylor
Sweet Baby James
Mud Slide Slim And The Blue Horizon
One Man Dog
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


Check out how this album stacks up against all other albums and singles I have reviewed by visiting my Music Review Index Page which features musical works in order from best to worst with clickable links to the reviews of each work!

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