Reviewed on this page:
Sweet Baby James - Mudslide Slim and the Blue Horizon - One Man Dog - Walking Man - Gorilla - In The Pocket - JT - Flag -
Dad Loves His Work - That's Why I'm Here -
Never Die Young - October Road
James Taylor was one of the most successful of the early 70s
singer-songwriters, using mostly acoustic production (soft rock
with folk overtones) and singing direct, personal love songs. There
was nothing particularly original about his approach, and he never
had the tunefulness of Carole King or the vocal, melodic or
lyrical chops of Joni Mitchell, but he knew
how to stay within his limits. He didn't overreach his abilities or
overestimate his audience, and he wasn't above recording cover
tunes if he didn't have any hit material of his own. As a result,
he continued to hit the charts regularly into the early 1980s. In
1972 Taylor married Carly Simon, who had no small success as a pop singer herself. (They divorced in 1982.)
I've never been too crazy about Taylor either. But the man did have talent: his lyrics are often very effective at creating a sentimental, nostalgic, or introspective mood, and he's good with word play and rhyming - so it's not all love songs. He wasn't blessed with a three-plus-octave range like Mitchell, but his voice is warm, personable, and precisely phrased. And then there's his remarkably consistent production, always tasteful to a fault, and still only slightly dated sounding two decades on. Taylor never tried to be an innovator like Mitchell, a virtuoso like Steve Stills, or a stylistic chameleon like Paul Simon, but he was damn good at what he did do. One note of caution: Taylor is so consistent that it's hard to distinguish any of his later records, so don't take our ratings of those records as a statement of strong opinion. If you really like the guy, practically everything he did is a four-star record. (JA)
James Taylor And His Flying Machine (rec. 1967, rel. 1970)
Sessions cut with his first band, not released until after he started hitting it big. (DBW)
Danny Kortchmar was a major contributor here; he went on to cut sessions on countless L.A. soft rock records. (
James Taylor (1968)
Another flop for the Apple label; somehow the Beatles couldn't make money off even
the most marketable talent. Partly it was timing; the public wasn't
ready for Taylor until Crosby, Stills &
Nash paved the way for him. This contains his original version of "Carolina In My Mind" and "Something In The Way She Moves," which inspired a certain George Harrison tune. (DBW)
Sweet Baby James (1970)
- His breakthrough album, containing his best-known song, the
sorrowful, sentimental "Fire and Rain," and the title track and
"Country Road" are also radio staples. He's even got a sense of
humor, although it's so subtle you may miss it: "Steamroller" is a
parody of a macho blues that sounds all too plausible. Another parody packs every acoustic blues cliché ever created into its one lengthy verse ("Baby Don't You Loose Your Lip On Me"). Everything's
low-key and quiet, and all the tunes are by Taylor except for a
version of "Oh Susannah," and everything's tuneful even when it's slight.
Carole King plays piano, Russ Kunkel's on drums, and
Randy Meisner and Bobby West split bass
duties. Produced by Peter Asher. (DBW)
- There's a lot of tuneful and sincere stuff here: all of the above, plus the Simon & Garfunkel-like bittersweetness of "Sunny Skies"; the Carole King-like sentimentality of "Blossom" (yes, she's on it); and "Suite For 20G," with its intelligent harmonies and unexpected instrumental transitions. The title track's waltzing country nostalgia is saccharine, but "Fire And Rain" is a masterpiece, and "Country Road" is solid. The first and possibly only James Taylor record you'll want to hear. (JA)
Also in 1970, Taylor played a benefit concert with Joni Mitchell and Phil Ochs, released in 2009 as Amchitka.
Mudslide Slim and the Blue Horizon (1971)
By now Taylor was involved with Joni Mitchell, and his songwriting
is more ambitious on the title track and "Long Ago and Far Away."
But mostly he sticks with generic love songs ("Love Has Brought Me
Around"), songs about the rock and roll lifestyle ("Hey Mister,
That's Me Up On The Jukebox"), even a ripoff of Lennon's "In My
Life" ("Places In My Past"). Unfortunately his sense of melody
seems to have taken a vacation, and the tunes tend to wander. The
arrangements are in the same spare, tasteful style of the previous
album. King is back on piano, and she contributes the #1 single
"You've Got A Friend" (which she does better herself on
Tapestry). Kunkel's still on drums, Lee Sklar is on bass and
Danny Kortchmar adds electric guitar to a couple of tracks. And
Mitchell contributes backing vocals on several tracks. (Too bad
she didn't write any of them.) Another Asher production.
One Man Dog (1972)
Taylor's one big attempt at a concept album, but it's thin. The main inspiration was McCartney's famous pop symphony on Abbey Road; so Taylor strings together a bunch of brief, half-formed, occasionally cryptic tunes than run almost without a break. It nearly works. With a small core band of Craig Doerge, Kortchmar, Kunkel, and Sklar recording mostly in Taylor's home studio, there's a sense of immediacy and spontaneity here that's lacking in all of his later albums. You'll get all of his famous mellow tunefulness and none of the hyper-slick overproduction of later records.
Plus the guests are well used: John McLaughlin, who smokes on "Someone"; Linda Ronstadt, who's pleasant on the old-timey 3/4 country number "One Morning In May"; Red Rhodes; Carole King and Carly Simon on backup vocals; Bobbye Hall; and especially the Brecker brothers, who came up with some interesting horn arrangements using trombone, flugelhorn, etc. Still, though, there are so many unfinished tunes here that the record never really engages the listener.
Taylor had established a devoted fan following at this point, so this one shot to the Top 10, and the single "Don't Let Me Be Lonely Tonight" made the Top 40. Taylor had split with Mitchell and promptly married Carly Simon, and her appearance here is the first of many on the records that followed. (JA)
Walking Man (1974)
This was Taylor's sole 70s album not to go gold, and it probably was due to the lack of a Top 40 hit. It's okay, though, with loads of his signature acoustic guitar, baritone crooning, and tasteful backing arrangements - in effect, the first classic-era Taylor record, and a good one. Even the occasional string sections are mostly harmless, except on the melodramatic longing-for-home travelogue "Hello Old Friend." And lyrically, Taylor pulls all the heartstrings again with rock star bathos ("Me And My Guitar"), nebulous philosophizing ("Migration"), fuzzy sentimental mood pieces ("Fading Away"), and even an oblique swipe at the collapsing Nixon administration ("Let It All Fall Down"). It's noteworthy as his first effort to speak his mind in the context of fully professionalized, unexperimental pop music, but on the other hand, it's forgettable.
Taylor had temporarily dumped his L.A. players in favor of a no-name six-piece band that included producer/guitarist David Spinozza, who contributed one tune ("Ain't No Song"; there's also a Chuck Berry cover). But there are still some important guests: Carly Simon and Paul and Linda McCartney sing backups on two tunes, and Simon is prominent on Taylor's one acoustic solo number, which is also the only real love song ("Daddy's Baby"). The Brecker brothers are among the numerous, but lightly used horn players. (JA)
Like the preceding effort, this is laid-back and thoughtful, with his acoustic guitar and warm vocals predominating. He had a hit with another cover, an Adult Contemporary version
of Marvin Gaye's "How Sweet It Is (To Be
Loved By You)"), which suits his mellow approach. He wrote everything else on the album, though, including the fun, jokey title track; an obvious but diverting ode to music (well, "Music"); and a fine defense of depression ("Angry Blues"). The mood's so pleasant he even gets away with a rambling mini-suite, "Love Songs."
The only star guests are Simon, Crosby & Nash, and there are a ton of sparely-used session cats: David Sanborn, Willie Weeks and Andy Newmark, Al Perkins, Kunkel & Sklar, Chuck Findley & George Bohanon, Victor Feldman and Milt Holland. Produced by Lenny Waronker & Russ Titelman. (DBW)
In The Pocket (1976)
A painful break with the engaging gentleness of his previous work; this is the mid-70s with a vengeance. Almost every track is
overarranged and overproduced, with any spark or spontaneity
squelched. (The album closer "Golden Moments" is a pleasant
exception.) And the lyrics are really weak: self-important
ruminations on his past ("Family Man"), life on the road (yes
again: "Daddy's All Gone"), and life in general ("Everybody Has The
Blues"). His attack on materialism ("Money Machine") has the only
traces of humor on the album, with even a little self-aware irony
(remarkably similar to Mitchell's "For The Roses"). There's also a
cover of Bobby Womack's classic "Woman's Gotta Have It." Guest
stars abound: David Crosby & Graham Nash,
Art Garfunkel, Stevie Wonder (who co-wrote the
platitudinous "Don't Be Sad Cause Your Sun Is Down"), plus Taylor's
then-wife, Carly Simon. And the band is mega-credentialed: Victor Feldman, Milt Holland, George Bohanon, Ernie Watts, Michael Brecker, Steve Madaio, Waddy Wachtel, Willie Weeks, Bobbye Hall, plus
regulars Kortchmar, Sklar and Kunkel. (DBW)
This was a huge smash: his first record to go double platinum since Sweet Baby James, and a substantial rebound from the relative failure of In The Pocket. The reason is simple. Taylor sold out completely, mixing in enough light disco and soft rock elements to drain away any hint of sincerity. On "I Was Only Telling A Lie," for example, he sounds just like a low-volume Eagles. And lyrically there's nothing new going on, with a few standard-issue travelogues and a lot more love songs than usual; the just-drums-and-vocals "Traffic Jam" breaks the mold with flakey crankiness, but it's no Shakespeare.
Then there's the mind-numbingly smooth soft rock crooner "Handy Man," which rose to #4; it wasn't even a Taylor original - Jimmy Jones had a major #2 hit with it in 1960, and Del Shannon revived it in 1964. But the follow-up Top 40 hit "Your Smiling Face" at least has a danceable bass line and good dynamics.
On balance, there's no inspiration here, but a lot of solid, modernized product that fans will enjoy.
The band is Kortchmar, Sklar, Kunkel, and a keyboardist named Dr. Clarence McDonald. Taylor collaborated with Simon on "Terra Nova," which also features her obligatory guest harmony vocal - she actually does an interesting a capella fade. But on the down side, David Sanborn drools sax on Kortchmar's "Honey Don't Leave L.A.," and Linda Ronstadt harmonizes on the noxiously sappy country-western "Bartender's Blues." (JA)
Yet another Top 10 album that went gold, it featured yet another Top 40 single, and yet another early 60s revival: Goffin and King's "Up On The Roof," a 1963 hit for the Drifters. The song's romantic sentiment is so tender and sweet you'd never guess it wasn't his; it's too bad Arif Mardin almost ruins it with a bombastic disco-like orchestral arrangement. There's also a chugging, hokey, over-orchestrated cover of "Day Tripper," although the rest of the material is Taylor's.
And elsewhere it's the JT formula all the way: tasteful, soothing, over-harmonized mid-tempo rock - "Company Man" is the best try - matched lyrically to travelogues ("Brother Trucker"), sentimental story telling ("Millworker"), and a lot of love songs. He even does one in French ("Chanson Francaise").
There are a couple of tracks like "Johnnie Comes Back" that almost rock out, and there's one really weird, lighthearted 50's doowop number ("Is That The Way You Look?"), but don't look here for surprises; it's hard to even tell this album from the last one. Sanborn, Simon, and the regular Taylor band (including producer Peter Asher) all resurface here, joined by guests like Graham Nash and sessionmen like Waddy Wachtel. (JA)
Dad Loves His Work (1981)
Relatively stripped-down, with no horns or strings, and much less reliance on backing vocals. To liven things up, though, he adds a harmonica player on several tracks ("Summer's Here") and relatively loud guitars (courtesy of Wachtel) to "Stand And Fight," while the album-ending "That Lonesome Road" is hymnlike, just piano and choir singing. The hit single was a touching duet with J.D.
Souther, "Her Town Too," and there are plenty more charming, low-key tunes ("Hard Times," "Hour That Morning Comes"), mostly character sketches instead of the usual love songs - the weirdest is a curious meditation on the Caribbean, sugar and slavery, cowritten with Jimmy Buffett (!). Like most of his output, this isn't going to change your mind if you don't like Taylor, but it'll be solidly satisfying if you do. (DBW)
That's Why I'm Here (1985)
At this point Taylor retrenched, dropping the slide/electric guitars from the
last record and abandoning any stylistic innovation. It's
relentlessly mellow: in the title track, he explains that he was put on
Earth to sing "Fire And Rain" over and over again. It's actually nice to
see anyone so satisfied with his limitations, but it doesn't make for a
particularly interesting listen: there are the covers (the Crickets'
"Everyday," slowed way down; "The Man Who Shot Liberty Vallance"), the
ordinary love songs ("Song For You Far Away"), the gentle humor ("Mona,"
about a slaughtered pig). It's carefully arranged and produced, his
voice is in fine form, and there are more of his trademark
comfortable melodies, but even if you're hooked on Taylor you might get a
bit bored with such a stereotypical outing. (DBW)
At this point Taylor gradually started fading; he still broke the Top 40, but just barely. (JA)
Never Die Young (1988)
By the late 80s, Taylor seems to have come to terms with himself.
Rather than chase production trends trying to regain his superstar
status, he's making low-key tuneful records that focus on his main
strengths: his voice, acoustic guitar and melodic songwriting. He's
not trying to do anything new here, but it's not boring, because
the tunes themselves are memorable - particularly the title track,
"Valentine's Day" (not as sappy as you'd think) and "Sweet Potato Pie."
The arrangements are mostly identical, with Sklar on bass, producer Don
Grolnick on keyboards, Carlos Vega on drums, and Bob Mann on second
guitar. Greg Taylor adds harmonica to one track, and Michael Brecker
plays sax on two, but that's about it.
If you can't stand Taylor, you'll be bored stiff, but almost everyone
else should be pleasantly drawn into the gentle mood. (DBW)
New Moon Shine (1992)
October Road (2002)
In the same general mode as Never Die Young - roots soft rock - but there's more variety: horns crop up on a number of places
(the rousing "Raised Up Family"); bagpipes (albeit synthesized ones) appear on the peacenik "Belfast To Boston";
"Mean Old Man" has jaunty piano accompaniment (from Larry Goldings) that brings it near show tune territory.
Taylor's songwriting is as sharp as ever ("Whenever You're Ready," with a memorable lilting refrain), with his mellow
delivery often masking uncomfortable feelings ("On The 4th Of July"; "Caroline I See You").
As usual, there are just a couple of covers: John Sheldon's "September Grass"; the standard "Have Yourself A Merry Little
Produced by Titelman; the rhythm section is Jimmy Johnson and Steve
Gadd, with Clifford Carter, Greg Phillinganes and Rob Mounsey rotating on keyboards,
and guitarists including Michael Landau and Ry Cooder.
In 2004, Taylor cut a duet version of "Sweet Potato Pie" with Ray Charles.
One Man Band (2007)
A live album, with lots of big hits: "You've Got A Friend"; "Sweet Baby James"; etc. (DBW)
Like it says. (DBW)
Other Covers (2009)
Leftovers from the sessions for the previous album.
That's why I'm out of here.