With his warm voice, pretty guitar-picking, and introspective song writing, James Vernon Taylor was perhaps the figurehead of the singer-songwriter movement in the early 1970s. His 1969 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 a 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 acoustic music and into generic soft-rock, and I have little interest in him, 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 married to fellow singer-songwriter Carly Simon, a marriage that ended after Taylor famously 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 a talented artist – he has a warm voice, his lyrics are elegant, and his guitar picking is accomplished. But he’s never really shown the ability to deliver convincing work beyond his core skill-set of introspective, acoustic, pretty songs. As a result I’ve only covered a handful of his early albums and a greatest hits, and arguably he’s a minor league artist who’s happened to write a few great songs. Incidentally, does his entire wardrobe consiste of blue shirts?
James Taylor Album Reviews
1968, not yet rated
James Taylor’s debut was recorded on The Beatles’ Apple label. I’ve never heard it – it was out of print when I was at my height of James Taylor appreciation – but I’d like to cover it sometime.
Sweet Baby James
James Taylor recorded his debut on The Beatles’ Apple label, but it failed to make him into 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 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, it’s just a little bewildering with its fast paced song skeletons and instrumentals.
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 features reworkings of ‘Carolina On My Mind’ and ‘Something In The Way She Moves’ from Taylor’s Apple debut, and they’re both excellent. 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 even has Taylor dropping a completely 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 overall stronger Sweet Baby James or Greatest Hits, because it has ‘Carolina In My Mind’, is a dilemma.
Ten Favourite James Taylor Songs
Fire And Rain
Carolina In My Mind
Mud Slide Slim
Long Ago and Far Away
One Morning In May
Lo And Behold
Never Die Young