Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Robust Taylor, Covers Satisfies Those Looking For Something Different From James Taylor!

The Good: Good vocals, Musically robust
The Bad: Not a great selection of songs for Taylor
The Basics: A good album that is not exactly indicative of James Taylor's writing talents, Covers expands Taylor's vocal range and provides impressive reinterpretations of known songs!

After a month and a half of listening to recordings by James Taylor, I was quite ready to move on with my life and focus on other musical artists. In fact, I've decided to revisit some of the female pop-rock artists who I might have glossed over on the first pass and I've been rather excited about that. But then, two days before Black Friday, I was given a copy of James Taylor's musical outing, Covers and I felt compelled to give it a couple good listens before moving on with the music I would rather have focused on.

The short version is Covers is a good album. But it's not a good James Taylor album. As a James Taylor album, it is adequate and at best it shakes up the perception of James Taylor as a tired, mellow singer songwriter who kind of blandly strums through a soft-rock repertoire. Covers alters that perception only by presenting James Taylor as a guy who can belt out some vibrant new versions of old songs that others wrote and recorded before him. The problematic contrast here, of course, is that one going back to Taylor's other works are likely to notice how stark and boring they are when one plays any three of them back to back to back.

With twelve tracks, clocking in at 41:51, Covers is James Taylor's least creative album to date. First, he did not write a single track on the album, nor did he co-write any of them. For this album, Taylor relied on the writing of others and perhaps the most familiar to his sound is Holland-Dozier-Holland, who Taylor got "How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You)" back in the '70's - on this album Taylor uses their song "(I'm A) Road Runner." Taylor does provide all of the lead vocals and he plays guitar on the album as well. He does take a co-producer's credit, so the sound of each song my reasonably be attributed to James Taylor.

To be fair to James Taylor, Covers is a decent album and it is one that mixes up his sound rather well. Instead of the usual placid, mellow, niche-bound James Taylor, on Covers, he really opens it up. Instead of just light rock, adult contemporary that Taylor has been embedded in for the last few albums, he mixes it up with more jazz and a classic country sound that harkens back to the singer-songwriter's musical roots.

Unfortunately, one of the strongest elements Taylor usually has working in his favor on his albums is the strength of his lyrics. Utilizing other people's works leaves him at the mercy of sensibilities often inferior to his own. Take, for example, "(I'm A) Road Runner," a song about moving, living life and not worrying so much about money and success. Taylor has dealt with this topic on several of his own, original tracks and with the lines "Money, who needs it? / Just to live my life / Free and easy / Put the toothbrush in my hand / And let me be travelin', man / 'Cause I'm a roadrunner, baby / I'm a roadrunner, baby / Can't stay in one place too long / I'm a roadrunner, baby / Mess with me and I'll be gone" ("(I'm A) Road Runner") it is simplified in a way that he never did on his own versions of dealing with the concept. While Taylor is one of the few artists I can think of who gets away still with using "baby," it's on this song a bit much even for him!

Similarly, Covers is plagued by repeatability that weakened some of the original tracks. "Hound Dog" is a remarkably simple song and while Taylor's version is longer than most, it is hardly less repetitive. This is not to say that all of the tracks are poor choices for Taylor. Even with a simpler rhyme scheme, "It's Growing" by Smokey Robinson and Warren Moore fits well within Taylor's sensibilities when he sings "Like the rose bud / Blooming in the warmth / Of the summer sun, / Oh baby, it's growing / Like the tale by the time / It's been told by more than one, / It's growing / Every day it grows a little more / Than it was on the day before / My love for you just grows / And grows / Oh, how it grows and grows / And where it's gonna stop / I'm sure that nobody knows." Taylor might be the only one who could make "grows" rhyming with itself and "knows" still work. The opening song cleanly establishes Covers and Taylor presents the song well.

Some of the songs James Taylor presents on Covers are actually on-par with Taylor's writing and sense of poetics. As a result, it is easy to see why James Taylor would want to present "Some Days You Gotta Dance" by Johnson and Morgan. With lines like "Well I was talking with my baby / Over a small glass of tea / He asked the loaded question / He said how do you feel about me / My mind was racin' I was pacin' / But the word just wouldn't come / And there was only on thing / Left to do I feel it comin' on" ("Some Days You Gotta Dance") it sounds almost like Taylor himself wrote it. After all, James Taylor has an impressive ability when it comes to writing storysongs in a classic folk-rock tradition and lyrically, "Some Days You Gotta Dance" fits well into that.

The sound of this album, though, is anything but folk-rock. Honestly, I've not heard all of the songs that James Taylor presents on this album in their originally-released versions. I would guess I have heard about half. What Covers does remarkably well is reinterprets known songs with entirely new sensibilities. Most of these songs are "oldies" or classic rock songs and James Taylor loads the album up with musical accompaniment. Instead of James Taylor's usual guitar or piano-driven tracks, Covers is filled with a virtual orchestra. As a result, it is not uncommon to hear trombones, trumpets, saxophones, flutes and violins on songs that never had them originally.

Take, for example, "Hound Dog." Arguably the most famous version was Elvis Presley's version, which was a guitar and percussion-dominated track. In fact, on his version the percussion is one of the most influential and complicated bits of rhythm in rock and roll music. For Covers, James Taylor completely reimagines the song as a song heavy in guitar, bass, and keyboards with a completely different sound and rhythm. Somewhat slower than the original, Taylor's version is more of a jazz track than a rock and roll one and the reimagining is quite impressive.

Even more well-known tracks (or equally well-known songs) like "On Broadway" have been cleverly reconfigured for this album. Unlike the brass-driven march I'm more used to (thank you, American Beauty!) Taylor presents a less raucous version of the song that leaves it with a very different resonance, one more of longing than of celebration.

As well, Covers provides a hugely different range of vocals from James Taylor. Taylor is all over the vocal range on this one, much like he was on his very first outing, James Taylor And The Original Flying Machine. In fact, for fans of Taylor's the best reference point would be his song "Steamroller." On "Steamroller," James Taylor sings lower and more soulful than on virtually any other track of his. Yet, he replicates a similar sense of range with songs like "Suzanne" and "Not Fade Away."

In other words, despite not being as strong as some James Taylor fans might like on the lyrical front, Covers provides a counterpoint to the more mundane musical outings many of his albums are. This is a much more lively, musically and vocally rich expression by James Taylor. One can only hope he takes that sensibility back to the studio for his next original work.

The best track is "Not Fade Away," the weakest link is the less-memorable "Sadie."

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


For other music reviews, please visit my Music Review Index Page for an organized listing!

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