Monday, November 24, 2008

Guest Spot: JASEsq

Hello, kittens. Today I've got a nice surprise: a really informed and thorough review of James Taylors' Covers cd (coincidentally, available now as an download for five bucks). Our guest today is my bud, Jill. We "met" first through our blogs, Facebook, mutual friend who insisted we would hit it off. Well--- true 'dat. Jill and I share love of books, movies, political persuasion, techy-ness, knitting, wine and music and JAMES TAYLOR... in fact---I've NEVER met anyone whose musical interests and tastes match mine so closely, whose head is so full of all the details of the stuff we love.

Jill is working on her MLS these days. She has a lovely husband who is also a librarian dude. They have a great dog ('tosh) and three cats (Milo (!), Dash and Simon). I just learned that Dash is a cat after my own heart: as Jill sits in her living chair typing in the sunlight, Dash delights in chasing the rainbow prisms flashing off her diamonds. When her fingers take a pause on the keyboard, poor Dash commences to yowling for her to get busy cranking out those shinies for his delight... who doesn't love a sparkly diamond??? Thanks, Jill for this review:

Wichita Lineman -- James Taylor
Why, Baby, Why-- James Taylor
Not Fade Away -- James Taylor
How's the World Treating You -- James Taylor & Alison Krauss
She Thinks I Still Care -- James Taylor

"In 2006, Blender Magazine named James Taylor the biggest of the 25 biggest musical "Wusses" of all time. The reactions I saw among my fellow JT fans mostly mirrored my own: a wry shrug, acknowledgment that our Sweet Baby James ain't the edgiest of fellows, and a tinge of regret that more people aren't aware of his less mainstream work. In his deeper cuts, JT showcases funk and blues, a sense of timing that is the envy of other musicians, and a profound (and often gleefully reprehensible) sense of humor.

After all, this is the guy who has a liner note credit for that rare musical instrument "chainsaw and 2x4."

But JT's public persona as a stuck-in-the-70's bland purveyor of pop pap is well enough ingrained into the zeitgeist that those of us who love him cherish that other, almost secret side -- it is a bit like we are fans of a different JT, one who is largely unknown to the masses. Of course, this warm, fuzzy, intimate feeling is blown to smithereens when you have to endure a massive clusterfuck of a venue like the Nissan Pavilion or the Tweeter Center in order to see him live, but such is the price of success.

Being a fan of JT is not without its disappointments (we shall not speak of Never Die Young) but most of his albums show him continuing to grow and develop as an artist. He never changes course dramatically, but he almost always gives a little more, gets a little looser, tries a little harder. This gives his albums warm comfort for the fan without ever giving the impression he is resting on his laurels. In the last six years or so, October Road and One Man Band have delivered exactly that kind of experience.


Every cover album is setting itself up for potential colossal failure, almost by definition. Unless the chosen material consists of well-worn chestnuts that have been worked over by every crooner since Sinatra or is a quirky collection of little-known gems of songwriting, there's the yardstick issue to be dealt with. Someone has already put their individual artistic stamp on this song, so it behooves the new artist to do one of two things: 1.) do what the original did and do it better: a lot better, or 2.) put a completely unique spin on each song that nobody else could do. The kiss of death for a cover is to just do a nice, workmanlike job on a group of reasonably well-known songs. Unfortunately, that's mostly what JT gives us here.

Before delving into the contents of Covers, it should be noted that some of JT's greatest hits are, in fact, covers. "Up on the Roof," "Handyman," "How Sweet it is (to be Loved By You)," and that linchpin of the wuss argument, "You've Got a Friend" are all covers. On his 2-disc CD Live, he delivers a soulfully original version of George Jones' "She Thinks I Still Care." This is a man who can, in fact, put his stamp on someone else's song, especially in a live setting. You would think that an album of covers, with JT's incomparable band all playing together in the same place at the same time would deliver a great, energetic, creative collection of tunes. Unfortunately, you'd be mostly wrong.

Contrary to the what that same place/same time setup might promise, the resulting album is low energy and dull. Slower tempo songs like "It's Growing," "Seminole Wind," and "On Broadway" are almost funereal. Oddly enough for a man who's known for his 70's sound, it's the songs that sound the most, well... 70's that suffer the most. I want to like "Wichita Lineman" a lot. It's an example of what Jimmy Webb could do when he wasn't writing silly bombast like "MacArthur Park," with soaring melancholy that can break your heart and make you smile at the same time. It's the kind of song JT should have been able to knock out of the park. But again, all the edges have been filed off and instead of soaring and wailing it is muted and pallid. "Seminole Wind," though written in 1992, sounds like it could have streamed out of 1977 AM radio, and it's a bit of a snooze. Worst of all are two instances of poor song selection - the R&B tribute to mom, "Sadie," which comes across as sappy (and has a frankly embarrassing spoken word intro), and a moribund version of Leonard Cohen's "Suzanne" (of all of Leonard Cohen's songs, this is the one he chose? Joni Mitchell could successfully have sung this, but not JT). These tunes are frankly and appallingly wussy.

The album finally does pick up a bit and we can see glimmers of life and signs of that "secret" JT, but it isn't until the fifth tune - "Some Days You Gotta Dance," before the album finally dusts itself off and gets going. "Why Baby Why" has a truly appealing country swing. On rock and roll classics ("Hound Dog," "Summertime Blues," and "Not Fade Away") we finally get to hear JT rip into the music with gusto, energy, and creativity. Five songs out of 12 isn't enough to save Covers as an album, but a real fan always looks forward to the next project. After all, JT rarely disappoints. We can forgive the occasional misstep."


KHM said...

"pop pap.." Heh. I'm thinking that no matter what you sing or write, if you manage to sell lots o' records for nearly 40 years, you've clearly got something that people are interested in. James Taylor is an amazing musician in every regard.

Covers...meh. Whatever. It doesn't ignite anything but its not as loathsome as some efforts by other artists I've admired (e.g., I am kinda' embarassed by Eric Clapton's "Pilgrim" disc). In the end, I'm glad you wrote this and directed my attention to some of these tunes because I won't spend my money (not even five bucks) on it.

I have, however, opted to buy the Live cd with the George Jones cover because that is excellent; I also finally bought the Louvin Brothers tribute cd that "How's the World Treating You" comes from---that's a beautiful track and I hope the rest of the disc is as pleasing. My maternal grandfather grew up in Kentucky and I have a huge place in my heart for the pleasure he took in bluegrass music.

And by the way, in case you didn't know, Jill: every passing year brings us changes in JT's face that increasingly resembles my KY grandfather. One more thing to love.

MD said...

Last Christmas (something about JT and December) I was given One Man Band as a gift (was it really only sold at Starbucks?!). Slap Leather is worn the price of admission and the DVD version is EVEN better ("one thing we said we would never do was a drum machine... this song features a drum machine). Ironic as I just listened to "The Frozen Man" today walking from Metro with temp in high 20s.

Fortunately the apple doesn't fall from the tree and I consider myself a HUGE Ben Taylor fan. Check out Another Run Around the Sun CD and OHIO (speaking of covers) on the fantastic Song of America compilation.

If being married to Carlie Simon and being able to pull off a funky hat at the Macy's Day Parade (?!) and living on the Vineyard make one a wuss... SIGN ME UP.

Oh wait, I already am...

MD said...

worth, not worn

Unknown said...

MarkStew (MDS): thanks... you've just validated the reason for my blogging tenacity. For some reason I've never followed through checking out Ben Taylor. Hello, Amazon Wishlist? Got one for ya!

I'm listening to an interview he did on NPR a couple years ago; just he and his acoustic. Its very nice. His voice is quite like JT's.

What is it about Carly Simon? I think she's actually got a freakishly large mouth that is really distracting. Big teeth, too.

I liked One Man Band but I know that's not universally felt. I dunno why. I think perhaps I'm not objective about him any more; he just feels like a part of my life and I like being reminded...