James Taylor

TrackAlbum
Carolina In My MindJames Taylor (Apple 1968)
Copperline(Live) / New Moon Shine
Country Road(Live)
Enough To Be On Your WayHourglass
Fire And RainSweet Baby James
Jump Up Behind MeHourglass
October RoadOctober Road
September GrassOctober Road
Sweet Baby JamesLive At The Troubadour
You’'ve Got A FriendMud Slide Slim and The Blue Horizon

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Contributor: Peter Viney

So you get an Apple recording contract in 1968, Paul McCartney on bass guitar, George Harrison (uncredited) and Peter Asher on backing vocals, then add a thirty piece orchestra. It’s a fair way to start a career. The version of Carolina In My Mind you may know is the one on his Classic Songs collection, but that’s a simpler 1976 recording done with countrified backing because they couldn’t license that Apple recording, done at the same time as The White Album. When the Apple album remaster came out in 2010, the jury was out on Carolina In My Mind, many opting for the 1976 remake (which Taylor prefers), claiming that the 1968 full strings version is overblown. It’s not. It’s great. It starts us off, though I was tempted to put both versions in. He was still doing the song forty years on, and the version on Live At The Troubadour is also tempting, restoring a smaller string section.

The Apple album was called simply James Taylor. Something In The Way She Moves (not The Beatles song) is the other standout and often repeated track, and one also redone in 1976. Both Night Owl and Brighten Your Night With My Day had previously been done by the earlier James Taylor & The Original Flying Machine, a group featuring Taylor and Danny Kortchmar, their failure referenced in Fire And Rain: sweet dreams and flying machines in pieces on the ground. The Flying Machine tracks were assembled on album in 1970 to cash in on Taylor’s success as the quintessential singer-songwriter, but they can’t compete with Richard Hewson’s orchestrations on the later versions on the Apple album.

Sweet Baby James was his breakthrough and best-known album, with his signature tune Fire And Rain. Carole King played piano and it forms a set with her Tapestry defining a style for the 70s singer-songwriter. The Sweet Baby James set has Danny Kortchmar on guitar, Russ Kunkel on drums, and Leland Sklar on bass, a solid backing section that he was to use for years. Country Road and Sweet Baby James are songs I’d like to include, but I’m going to take the Live At The Troubadour version of the latter, possibly just because I love the introduction, and the (Live) version of the former. Steamroller was a pastiche on white blues/soul bands, but proved that James covered light soul and blues extremely well, as he was to prove again and again over the years with covers like How Sweet It Is.

On the next album, Mud Slide Slim and The Blue Horizon, the best-known song is Taylor covering Carole King’s You’ve Got A Friend. Same rhythm section, Carole King, a touch of Joni Mitchell vocals here, Richard Greene on fiddle there. The pattern of exemplary backing, the same gentle voice, minor hits in Long Ago & Far Away, was being set. It was a surprise when One Man Dog, his fourth album, but third Warner Bros album, ran into the classic third album syndrome for me at least. It had a significant hit in Don’t Let Me Be Lonely Tonight, a constant in his live act since. Even more special guests … Linda Ronstadt, John McLaughlin, Carly Simon and a big horn section. I don’t know why but I played it a lot, hoping to get that Sweet Baby James/Mud Slide vibe, but it was a bit too similar, and a bit too mild for me.

Walking Man in 1974 adds Paul & Linda McCartney, Carly Simon but I didn’t buy that one. I returned briefly for 1975’s Gorilla, led by that great How Sweet It Is and Mexico, then with In The Pocket (with Shower The People) I abandoned his work for quite a while. Maybe Shower The People explains why, along with the Wonderful World collaboration with Paul Simon & Art Garfunkel. It was all a bit too smooth, and too worthy. Oh, I’d hear the lead tracks, in those days of going to people’s homes just to listen to albums, I was exposed to a few, but we get to a run of albums where I know the songs pulled out for the many Best ofs and the odd live albums but not the albums as a whole. But Toppermost isn’t supposed just to be a comprehensive run through, so I’m going to fast forward and there’s the “Comment” section if anyone would like to elaborate on this period. OK, JT in 1977 gave a notable cover of Handy Man, Flag in 1979 was a bit more interesting with Rainy Day Man and covers of Up On The Roof (excellent) and Day Tripper (misguided). The Fast Forward control accelerates through Dad Loves His Work, That’s Why I’m Here, Never Die Young, New Moon Shine.

Fast forward was pulling off the spools … but then came a double album, (Live). Taylor has always assembled first rate bands and has several live DVDs of note, and I came back on board with (Live)… and it has a track or two from each of the skipped ones. Copperline jumped out at me, which was from New Moon Shine. Millworker is from Flag, and I prefer the (Live) version too. It was originally written for the musical Working and is a traditional narrative ballad, sung from a female perspective, something which does not bother true folk singers! So Copperline represents this period in the list. The version of Country Road on (Live) is a showstopper, especially the central section with only Taylor’s voice and Carlos Vega’s drums. It has to go in just to demonstrate how much Taylor actually rocks live. The album states that there is no overdubbing.

(Live) had rekindled my interest, and 1997’s Hourglass cemented it. All those DVDs prove how good his live shows always are. When I saw him in 2003, the only description for the band was immaculate (with Steve Gadd on drums – Taylor has great taste in drummers). He is a first-rate guitarist on his own too. He joined the elect few who got a perfect sound balance in the difficult BIC hall in Bournemouth, up there with k.d. lang. Leonard Cohen and Paul Simon … most bands have problems there. He came back in 2011. I bought tickets months in advance. On the morning of the show (so I thought) I went into my local record store and asked the owner ‘Are you going to James Taylor tonight?’ Only to be told. ‘No, I went last night.’ I’d written the wrong day on the calendar. Still, I already have my ticket for October 2014.

My two favourite albums are Hourglass and the subsequent October Road. Fan reviews online assure me that all the ones I skipped are as good, but no, for me in my partial ignorance, these are the masterpieces, and the self-imposed restriction to two tracks apiece leaves some of his best work on the cutting room floor.

Hourglass arrived after a long gap, and was generally acclaimed by reviewers. It got a Grammy for Best Pop Album in 1998 and was a major seller. Jump Up Behind Me is his first choice, based on how his dad rescued him when Flying Machine collapsed, but also a universal feeling. Then Enough To Be On Your Way is an unbearably poignant musing on the death of an old friend, Alice (though it’s said to be a careful name shift from his brother, Alex, which was perhaps too close). Taylor has always had a powerful line in poignancy. Gaia is just as good as the other two, but doesn’t get in because the title sounds like a pan pipes and tom toms CD bought in a health food shop. Another Day is a beautiful love song … it’s a magic album throughout.

So October Road came next, and it’s as good, though you need the deluxe edition which had a bonus CD. I couldn’t put a hair between the two first songs, and they are my favourite tracks, September Grass and October Road.

So you see those ants, dancing on a blade of grass?
That’s you and me, baby. Yes, it is …

After those two build up an autumnal metaphor, I was hoping he’d work through the calendar. Well, he does finish up with Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas (before doing a full Christmas album next). The perky Whenever You’re Ready was a strong candidate for the list. You need the bonus CD for the version of Sailing To Philadelphia with Mark Knopfler, but that might be one for a Mark Knopfler Toppermost, as it’s his song.

Covers has him taking on The Temptations’ It’s Growing, and Road Runner and Motown is a forte. Of course I’d prefer The Temptations version of It’s Growing, but for a mature, white cover, it’s extremely good. On Broadway is taken at a relaxed loping pace too, but Suzanne doesn’t make it for me. Summertime Blues is interesting, but Eddie Cochran is in a different stratosphere. Pleasant, well-executed covers, but nothing radical or better than the originals. The sort of thing you’d love in concert.

Live at The Troubadour is with Carole King, and on CD and DVD, and alternates King and Taylor songs, usually done by both. After all, both of them recorded You’ve Got A Friend and Up On The Roof. The contrasting voices work so well throughout the album, switching verses. The arrangement of Up On The Roof is especially good. But Sweet Baby James is the choice, with King’s echoing backing vocal. Country Road and Blossom, both from that classic album, are bubbling under.

A tribute to the breadth of James Taylor’s work is that, even with the gaps, I think this was the Toppermost list which got amended the greatest number of times. Ones that have been in (then out) include Gaia, Millworker, It’s Growing, How Sweet It Is, Whenever You’re Ready, Brighten Your Night With My Day and Steamroller.

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TopperPost #148

3 Comments

  1. Peter Viney
    Dec 26, 2013

    As soon as you make a list, you change your mind. I had “Copperline” in and a friend insists that the album it comes from, New Moon Shine (1991), is very much like Hourglass and October Road, and I was missing his two best songs: The Frozen Man and (I’ve Got To) Stop Thinkin’ ‘Bout That. A week of dedicated listening to the album and it is a great one, but people keep saying they all are. The Frozen Man is a fascinating lyric, sung in the first person by a man who fell from a sailing ship in the 19th century, was preserved in the ice, and has been resuscitated. Yes, sounds weird. It’s highly original with a fine melody. Stop Thinkin’ Bout That is co-written with Danny Kortchmar.

  2. Simon Appleby
    Jan 18, 2014

    I saw JT at the Barbican many years ago. He came on stage on his own and sang Something In the Way She Moves, just him and his guitar, and the hairs on the back of my neck really did stand up…

    I would have to have You Can Close Your Eyes in my JT Toppermost – the best grown-up lullaby, bar none – and possibly Traffic Jam from the Live album because it’s just such amazing fun. Oh, and Steamroller, from Greatest Hits.

    I agree about the two tracks from New Moon Shine too – he did them both live. He’s a closet rocker, is JT!

  3. Peter Viney
    Oct 6, 2014

    I just posted a review of James Taylor, 5th October 2014 at Bournemouth, here. He only did five of the Toppermost selection, but it was still a great show, choosing from lesser-known albums.

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