Sunday, March 11, 2012

James Taylor's Other Early Experiment Underwhelms Me With One Man Dog.

The Good: Good vocals, Musically rich
The Bad: Not Taylor's best lyrics, dreadfully short songs, short album
The Basics: Instantly more interesting to listen to than most of James Taylor's works, One Man Dog trades substance for style and ultimately fails the listener.

For those who might be reading along my many reviews of the music of James Taylor and getting to the point where they are sick of the reviews, please believe me; it's worse listening to each of these albums at least eight times! After all, when an album works and is good, it is easy to write about it and it is a pleasure to listen and re-listen to it over and over again. But when an artist finds their musical niche and sticks to it pretty faithfully, this is a form of torture to listen over and over and over to the same albums to be able to fairly and realistically critique them.

I mention this because Taylor's album One Man Dog is both an album I could see merit in and became sick of remarkably quickly. Musically, it is one of Taylor's richest with supporting instrumentals and vocals that give him a very full sound that makes for a complete album and a decent concept for what the abilities of this artist can be. Unfortunately, it holds up poorly over multiple listens and more than any other early James Taylor work, I can't find the single. It was "Don't Let Me Be Lonely Tonight," but that song is virtually lost on this album which is packed with other songs that are far more musically full. And while the first "official" James Taylor album left me baffled as to how it was made, One Man Dog is less cohesive as a musical experience and it is hard to imagine that many people found this a satisfying and enduring album back in the day even.

With eighteen tracks clocking in at only 37:51, One Man Dog is one of James Taylor's most collaborative early works. Taylor, well known for being a singer-songwriter right from the beginning of his career let a number of people write or co-write on this album. Out of the eighteen songs, only fourteen are written by Taylor exclusively and at least two of those are instrumental tracks. Of the other four, only one is co-written by Taylor - "Woh, Don't You Know," one of Taylor's worst and most self-referential songs of his career. The other three are written by early bandmate Daniel Kortchmar ("Back On The Street Again"), Bill Keith and Jim Rooney ("One Morning In May") and John McLaughlin ("Someone"). Even the songs that are written by Taylor aren't his best ever, but "One Morning In May" doesn't even sound like one of Taylor's.

James Taylor, naturally, provides the lead vocals for all of the songs that have vocals to them, but he is backed by a number of vocalists. "One Morning In May" is essentially a duet between Taylor and Linda Rondstadt and Carole King appears on three songs, one of which also features Carly Simon doing background vocals! Instrumentally, Taylor does branch out a bit on One Man Dog. In addition to his usual acoustic guitar - which he plays on thirteen tracks - he branches out with the harmonica ("One Man Parade"), electric guitars on four songs, bells, autoharps, and even a toolbox of instruments when he plays a chain saw, hammer and 4 x 8 on "Little David."

Moreover, Taylor is not the only one playing different or more instruments than one usually hears on the standard James Taylor album. Taylor does not play an instrument on "Hymn," but the song is in no way bland or underperformed. Instead, like many of the tracks, it has a brass section - trumpets and trombones - that Taylor introduces to his folk-rock sound on this album. It is too bad that with his musical enrichment, he didn't have the writing to back it up. One Man Dog is like a movie with an excellent cast, but no script. This is instantly intriguing to the ear, but the moment one picks at it slightly, the whole work falls apart as a somewhat sludgelike musical experience.

That said, the best song by far as far as the lyrics is also the one that sounds most like the traditional, mundane James Taylor that one might know and love. That song is "Don't Let Me Lonely Tonight." What makes that song so wonderful is that Taylor actually has something to say on the song and he says it with beautiful and lasting poetry. Taylor takes a stab at the universal desire to love and be loved when he wrote and sang, "Say good-by and say hello, / Sure enough good to see you, but it's time to go, / Don't say yes but please don't say no, / I don't want to be lonely tonight. / Go away then, damn you, / Go on and do as you please, / You ain't gonna see me gettin' down on my knees. / I'm undecided, and your heart's been divided, / You've been turning my world upside down" ("Don't Let Me Be Lonely Tonight"). This song is amazing in its presentation of desire and ambivalence toward one's own desire.

"Don't Let Me Be Lonely Tonight" is also an exception on the album. What One Man Dog often lacks is that sense of universal. It also lacks truly meaningful storysongs that generally define the works of James Taylor. What it does have is musical experimentation. With this also comes lyrical experimentation. Perhaps the most extreme example of that is "Chili Dog." I first heard "Chili Dog" on one of Taylor's live albums and I wondered where the heck it came from. It appears to have come from One Man Dog. Sadly, it does not make it any better with its lame lines of "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 I'm a chili dog, baby (you and me) / Delicious" ("Chili Dog")! At least it's better than his ode to getting high with "Mescalito."

The thing is, One Man Dog lacks a lot of the sophisticated lyrical development one expects even from early or experimental James Taylor. Many of the songs are no more than two minutes and the short duration makes a number of them seem less professional or polished than they ought to. Take, for example, "Little David." This song is comprised entirely of the lines "Little David, play on your harp / Hallelu, hallelu, little David / Play on your harp, hallelujah / Little David, play on your harp / Hallelu, hallelu, little David / Play on your harp, hallelujah / Hey now, I don't know for sure / It gets said, I got told / Someone said that the streets of heaven /
Are paved with solid gold / It must make a might fine road" ("Little David"). There's a repetition of the first stanza again, but basically, this is a nine-word song interrupted by a five line poem. There is a reason it does not make it into the annals of great James Taylor works; it's too short to leave much of an impression and it runs right into the song that follows it.

In other words, One Man Dog is something of a failed experiment and what Taylor added in sound, he lost in lyrics. Longtime producer Peter Asher let Taylor go wild on this one and, if anything, it is an argument for restraint in the creation of folk-rock music. At least, it's an argument for having something to say with folk-rock music and One Man Dog does not seem to have anything coherent to say.

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
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 check out my Music Review Index Page for an organized listing of all of the music reviews I have written!

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

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