With his warm voice, pretty guitar-picking, and introspective songwriting, James Vernon Taylor was the figurehead of the singer-songwriter movement in the early 1970s. His 1968 debut album on The Beatles‘ Apple label flopped, despite featuring one of his best songs ‘Carolina In My Mind’, as well as ‘Something In The Way She Moves’ which inspired the famous George Harrison song. After spending time in rehab for heroin addiction, Taylor joined Warner Brothers for Sweet Baby James, his second album, and hit the big time with a cover story in Time Magazine.
After 1976’s Greatest Hits, Taylor strayed away from folk-influenced music and into generic soft-rock, although in later years he returned to his core style; ‘Copperline’ from 1991’s New Moon Shine is one on his best songs. Taylor was famously married to fellow singer-songwriter Carly Simon. The marriage ended after Taylor provocatively titled an album Dad Loves His Work in response to Simon’s ultimatum that he needed to spend more time with his family.
James Taylor is talented – he has a warm voice, his lyrics are elegant, and his guitar picking is accomplished. He’s rarely shown the ability to deliver convincing work beyond his core skillset of introspective, acoustic, pretty songs. A handful of classic songs like ‘Fire and Rain’, ‘Copperline’, and ‘Carolina In My Mind’ overshadow the rest of his catalogue. As a result, I’ve only covered a handful of his early albums and a compilation.
James Taylor Album Reviews
Favourite Album: Sweet Baby James
Overlooked Gem: James Taylor
James Taylor played with Danny Kortchmar in Flying Machine in the 1960s. When the band failed to break through to popular success, Taylor spent six months receiving mental health treatment, before relocating to London. Taylor connected with Peter Asher, formerly of Peter and Gordon and now A&R for The Beatles’ Apple Records. Paul McCartney and George Harrison were impressed by Taylor and he became Apple Records’ first non-British act.
Taylor already had a stockpile of songs from his Flying Machine days, although ‘Carolina in My Mind’ was a new composition. It was inspired by homesickness, while the “holy hosts of others” line refers to Harrison and McCartney. Soft rock hadn’t yet been popularised in 1968, and James Taylor lacked the mellow sounds of Taylor’s later catalogue. The tempos are markedly faster, while arranger Richard Anthony Hewson added orchestral passages that invite comparison to The Beatles’ mid-1960s records.
It makes sense that the 1976 re-recordings of the two best-known tracks from James Taylor – ‘Something in the Way She Moves’ and ‘Carolina in My Mind’ – have become the definitive versions because they’re more in step with the rest of his catalogue. But despite the overbearing orchestration and markedly different style, James Taylor is arguably Taylor’s best set of tunes on record with highlights like ‘Knocking ‘Round The Zoo’, ‘Night Owl’, and ‘Rainy Day Man’.
James Taylor was ultimately a false start for Taylor’s career – he was unable to promote it due to heroin addiction, and it’s ended up as a rewarding oddity in his catalogue.
Sweet Baby James
James Taylor recorded his debut on The Beatles’ Apple label, but it failed to make him a star, partly because Taylor was spending time institutionalised, trying to break free of his drug habits. Taylor turned these experiences into ‘Fire and Rain’, and re-launched his career with Warner Brothers. Taylor is joined by Carole King on piano, future Eagles’ bassist Randy Meisner, and session musicians Danny Kootch and Ross Kunkel, who steer the record in a country direction, underscored by the album’s opening line “there is a young cowboy/he lives on the range.”
Sweet Baby James is helped immeasurably by the presence of the classic ‘Fire And Rain’, which is the album’s outstanding song. There’s an emotional pull in the lyrics, about the suicide of a friend which shook Taylor out of his own depression, also referencing his and Kootch’s former band The Flying Machine in the final line “Sweet dreams and flying machines in pieces on the ground.” The other key track is ‘Steamroller’, where Taylor demonstrates a sense of humour on a gentle blues parody. There’s also a great cover of the Stephen Foster standard ‘Oh, Susannah’, and solid album tracks like ‘Lo And Behold’, ‘Country Road’ and ‘Anywhere Like Heaven’. The only real filler is the second blues parody ‘Baby Don’t You Loose Your Lip On Me’, while the maudlin ‘Sunny Skies’ makes for uncomfortable listening sometimes.
Sweet Baby James is an effective work and a time capsule of a certain period, even if Taylor lapses into sentimentality too often to allow the album to appeal to music snobs.
Mud Slide Slim (And The Blue Horizon)
Sweet Baby James made James Taylor a star, and the following year’s Mud Slide Slim finds him already sliding into irrelevant pleasantness. There are no significant lyrics like ‘Fire And Rain’; Taylor is now prepossessed with straight-from-the-genre-handbook subjects of love and lonesome travelling; ‘Riding On A Railroad’, ‘Let Me Ride’, ‘Highway Song’ and ‘Isn’t It Nice To Be Home Again’ are all eligible for the latter category. To give it credit, this record is more sonically adventurous than Sweet Baby James, with wah-wah guitar on the excellent title track, but it slides into cliché too often and it’s often a little insubstantial. Carole King again guests on piano, while Joni Mitchell adds backing vocals on several tracks
Regrettably, Greatest Hits, which has become the quintessential James Taylor album, only includes the sentimentalised cover of King’s ‘You’ve Got A Friend’, meaning that there are some strong songs here that have been unfairly overlooked. The second single was the gorgeous ‘Long Ago And Far Away’, which is far more deserving of recognition, while the funky title track is the album’s highlight. The latter is far too short, only using the memorable “There’s nothing like the sound of sweet soul music to change a young lady’s mind” chorus once, but makes some amends with a lengthy jam at the end.
Even wimpier than Sweet Baby James, Mud Slide Slim is hardly a record to convince James Taylor sceptics, but it’s a solid if often slight addition to his catalogue for his fans.
One Man Dog
One Man Dog is a single LP jamming eighteen short tracks into thirty-eight minutes. The obvious reference point is the second side of Abbey Road – One Man Dog is essentially a countrified version of that suite. There are guest stars galore – Joni Mitchell, Carly Simon, and Linda Ronstadt all provide backing vocals, while most incongruously, Mahavishnu Orchestra’s John McLaughlin plays acoustic guitar on ‘Someone’. The final result is unsatisfying as pieces flash by without quite sticking, but it’s a valiant attempt at expanding his sound from Taylor.
One Man Dog has plenty of beautiful songs – the traditional ‘One Morning In May’ is gorgeous, with Ronstadt and Taylor harmonising, while the single was ‘Don’t Let Me Be Lonely Tonight’, slight but pretty. If you’re an awkward white boy like me, you’ll dig the album’s opening lines; “Do believe I’m gonna clap my hands/Think I might tap my feet.” The suite near the end of the second side with ‘Hymn’ and ‘Fanfare’ is also gorgeous.
One Man Dog is an album that probably appeals to dedicated James Taylor fans – there are plenty of pretty songs, but it’s bewildering with its fast-paced song skeletons and instrumentals.
Taylor changed gears in the mid-1970s, moving away from singer-songwriter fare and towards a more polished pop-rock sound. It’s a similar path to contemporaries like Paul Simon and Joni Mitchell, but Taylor’s less equipped for it. Most of his great songs are low-key and personal. As a pop artist he’s less distinctive, even with his charm and melodic sensibility. Walking Man feels uninspired – the cover photo is mundane and the tracklist is skimpy. It was an unsuccessful by Taylor’s standards – it failed to break into the top ten. Paul and Linda McCartney supply backing vocals on ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll is Music Now’ and ‘Let it All Fall Down’.
The title track’s the best-known song on the record – it was written for Taylor’s father, who spent long spells away from home during Taylor’s childhood, serving in the army and working in Antarctica. It like a rare case where Taylor has something to say on this record – song titles like ‘Me and My Guitar’ suggest an artist low on inspiration. It’s fun to hear him cover Chuck Berry’s ‘The Promised Land’, but it’s inessential. The orchestrated ‘Hello Old Friend’ is one interesting moment, leaning even harder into soft-rock than the rest of the record and showcasing Taylor’s smooth vocal.
Even more than One Man Dog, you only need to bother with Walking Man if you’re a hardcore Taylor fan.
It seemed like the lacklustre Walking Man indicated that Taylor couldn’t create a satisfying pop album. But Gorilla is much stronger – it enthusiastically embraces pop music, with stronger songs, as well as more humour and energy. Crosby and Nash provide backing vocals on the opener ‘Mexico’, while Randy Newman and Little Feat’s Lowell George also appear.
‘Mexico’ was the lead single, but the best-known track is Taylor’s charming cover of Marvin Gaye’s ‘How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved by You)’, with Carly Simon on backing vocals and virtuoso electric piano from Clarence McDonald. But there are plenty of solid tracks beside those – ‘Lighthouse’ successfully marries pretty acoustic guitar with a pop sheen, and there are memorable love songs like ‘I Was A Fool to Care’ and ‘You Make It Easy’. ‘Sarah Maria’, written for Taylor’s newborn daughter, is pretty.
Gorilla isn’t quite a great album – it’s a little too lightweight – but it’s one of Taylor’s stronger efforts.
In the Pocket
In The Pocket was Taylor’s last studio album for Warner Brothers. More than any other album on this page, it breaks Taylor out from his usual singer-songwriter style. It’s less built around guitar than usual, with more variety in texture – Taylor uses electric piano, saxophone, and synths. It’s unusually ambitious, and songs like ‘Daddy’s All Gone’ and ‘Slow Burning Love’ are atmospheric and moody. It’s not quite the masterpiece that Taylor was perhaps aiming for, as the songs are a step down from Gorilla, especially towards the back half of the record, but it’s surprisingly diverse and ambitious.
‘Shower the People’, with Carly Simon on backing vocals, was the album’s hit – it’s always bothered me how Taylor pronounces the as “de” here, making the song unnecessarily close to reggae. There’s another effective R&B cover – this time it’s Bobby Womack’s ‘Woman Gotta Have It’. Again, it’s packed with guest stars. The Stevie Wonder collaboration is a little disappointing, but Art Garfunkel adds harmonies to a couple of the most ambitious tracks – ‘A Junkie’s Lament’ and ‘Captain Jim’s Drunken Lament’. Taylor is surprisingly bluesy on ‘Money Machine’, while ‘Golden Moments’ is one of Taylor’s prettiest tunes, framed in shimmering voiceorgan and hornorgan.
In The Pocket is uncharacteristically ambitious from Taylor, and it’s worth some effort.
I’ve always found James Taylor more satisfying in terms of individual songs than in full albums, so you’d figure that a compilation would be a good option. But this 1976 Greatest Hits is a story with two clear halves, the first side with highlights from Taylor’s singer-songwriter days and a more pop-oriented second half. The first side opens with excellent new versions of ‘Carolina On My Mind’ and ‘Something In The Way She Moves’, originally from Taylor’s Apple debut. There are three strong selections from Sweet Baby James, although it’s a shame there’s no space for ‘Long Ago And Far Away’ or ‘Mud Slide Slim’ from Mud Slide Slim.
The second side is bordering on mediocre, with predictable pop fare like ‘Shower the People’ and a slight but charming take on ‘How Sweet It Is’, although Crosby and Nash’s harmonies render ‘Mexico’ enjoyable. The nadir is a live version of ‘Steamroller’, which misses the humour of the original and has Taylor dropping an out-of-character f-bomb.
I’m keeping my copy of Greatest Hits since I’m very fond of ‘Carolina In My Mind’, but I’m not sure if I need to own two James Taylor albums; the debate between keeping the stronger overall Sweet Baby James or Greatest Hits, because it has ‘Carolina In My Mind’, is a dilemma.
On the back of a successful greatest hits album, JT was a commercial rebound for Taylor. It was his highest-charting album since Mud Slide Slim, and it’s his best seller. Taylor’s backed by most of The Section (Danny Kortchmar, Leland Sklar, and Russ Kunkel), while Carly Simon, Linda Ronstadt, and Leah Kunkel all feature on backing vocals. JT is wildly inconsistent both in style and quality, veering from the nasty blues of ‘Honey Don’t Leave L.A.’ to routine adult contemporary material.
The record starts well with ‘Your Smiling Face’, a propulsive and sophisticated pop song that echoes Van Morrison’s work from the same period. Taylor turns in an agreeably impassioned vocal on Kortchmar’s ‘Honey Don’t Leave L.A.’, while the cover of Jimmy Jones’ ‘Handy Man’ suits his warm voice. Otherwise, JT is an adult contemporary morass; the record’s momentum is immediately destroyed by the placement of ‘There We Are’ as the second track, a pretty adult contemporary piece that’s badly sequenced.
The smooth and sophisticated ‘Your Smiling Face’ is a worthy addition to Taylor’s catalogue, but overall JT is rough going, with a few gems among routine and unremarkable soft-rock.
Ten Favourite James Taylor Songs
Fire And Rain
Carolina In My Mind
Mud Slide Slim
Long Ago and Far Away
Your Smiling Face
One Morning In May
Only a Dream in Rio
Back to 1970s Album Reviews….
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Aphoristic Album Reviews is almost entirely written by one person.
Graham Fyfe is probably the only music blogger to appreciate both Neil Diamond and Ariana Grande. Based in Fleet Street (New Zealand), he's been writing this blog since around 2000. Aphoristic Album Reviews features reviews and blog posts across a growing spectrum of popular music.
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