Sunday, November 15, 2009

The Twelve Tasks Of ToffeeBoy #11 – James Taylor

At last, I can see the light at the end of the tunnel – however, as our good friends Half Man Half Biscuit were good enough to warn us, said light could well be that of an oncoming train! Anyhoo, the pointless task which I set myself at the beginning of 2009 is now nearly complete, this being the penultimate one.

Back in January I drew up a list of possible contenders to share with the class which I then almost immediately lost and couldn’t quite bring myself to recreate. All I know for sure is that the current taskee was on that list. Over the very nearly two years since I first posted in these parts I’ve almost come to terms with the idea that my taste in music (which I had always thought of as mainstream) doesn’t quite fit into the RR mindset. I did quite well under Maddy’s tenure but with the other gurus (Dorian included) it’s all gone very quiet. I’m currently stalled on 5 A-Listers with only one of those appearing in 2009! So it doesn’t come as too much of a surprise to me when I note that one of my favourite artists has so far drawn a blank in RR-land – Martin Stephenson, The High Llamas, Dean Friedman, Microdisney, Gene and Crowded House for instance are all currently languishing in the null points section – but I have to say that I was shocked (shocked, d’ye hear?) to discover that the subject of this month’s task has failed to trouble the RR scorers.

According to the Mighty Marconium Koko Taylor’s made it once and R Dean of that ilk has two hits to his name – but their younger brother James? Nada. Nichts. Rien. Not a sniff. Now, I’m prepared to accept that the other artistes named above are (largely) best described as peripheral as far as the history of popular music is concerned but surely no one can deny that JT is a significant artist? This year sees the 40th anniversary of the release of his eponymously-titled debut album. Since then he’s released another 15 studio albums, ten of which have reached the US top ten, and ten of which have gone platinum (no I don’t really know what that means either). There have also been countless EPs, singles and ‘Best Of’ compilations – all of which add up to a considerable body of work.

The list of artists that James Taylor has collaborated with over the years reads like a who’s who of British & American popular music. Here’s a small sample of the names: Michael & Randy Brecker, Neil Young, Valerie Carter, David Crosby, Steve Gadd, Art Garfunkel, George Harrison, Don Henley, Carole King, Paul McCartney, Joni Mitchell, Graham Nash, Carly Simon, Joe Walsh and Stevie Wonder.

But none of this really matters; my point is that, as a song writer, if nothing else, JT is right up there with the very best of them. I love his plaintive voice, his lyrics are honest and often self-referential and to top it all he’s an exceptionally accomplished guitarist - but above all, it's about the melodies. I’m less fond of his rockier numbers – he really should stick to the more folk-tinged acoustic sound – but at his best, he is undoubtedly one of the best around. So why has he never made it to the A-List? F*cked if I know. Doesn’t make any sense at all to me …

The last few tasks have met with generally favourable comments – with this one I fear that I may once more have to face up to the dreaded accusations of … M.O.R! So anticipating such comments let me just say this: No. You’re wrong! Look beyond the (admittedly) relatively easy-on-the ear music and you will find depth and beauty. These are the songs of a troubled man and his hurts and his pain can, at times, clearly be felt – but they’re also the songs of a very funny and entertaining man. I’ve never seen him live but I’ve seen plenty of concert footage and believe me, it’s good stuff.

OK: confession time. Of the 15 albums released by James Taylor, I only have six – and five of them are from the 70s. Hmmm… Hardly representative then, I hear you say. Well … you’ll just have to take it as you find it. Of course if any of you have any other JT recordings that you’d like to share …

If you buy one James Taylor album it should probably be Sweet Baby James – personally I prefer In The Pocket but SBJ is arguably a more ‘important’ album. There are also some very good ‘Best Of’ collections to choose from.

The Music
Something In The Way She Moves
Carolina In My Mind
Country Road
Fire And Rain
Riding On A Railroad
Mud Slide Slim
Don’t Let Me Be Lonely Tonight
One Man Parade
Walking Man
I Was A Fool To Care
A Junkie’s Lament
Captain Jim’s Drunken Dream
On The Fourth Of July
September Grass

Bonus track to get us all in the mood for the upcoming festivities:
Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas

Official website
Unofficial website


CaroleBristol said...

Sweet Baby James is a wonderful album, love it to bits, and Fire and Rain is one of my all time favourite songs.

DarceysDad said...

Mmm, interesting.

James Taylor is one of those artists (funnily enough, Velevet Underground are another, and I'll pop into Carole's debate later) that . . .

. . . how can I put this . . .

If someone mentions James Taylor, my brain seems to have a default setting of: Of course we know about him, but there's nothing interesting for us to see here, so let's move along, shall we?

But if I consciously put myself on the spot with the challenge: OK, exactly what DO we know of him? Repeat it for the class ..., then I actually find myself standing in silence, embarrassingly staring at my shuffling feet!

So an excellent choice for me, ToffeeBoy, and I shall give both you and JT the attention your efforts deserve at some point this week.

Blimpy said...

Good choice, cos I only know this guy's name, and nothing else. Hopefully I'll get to it, once i've finished with Abahachi's latest podcast.

Sometimes I wish I had two brains (and ears) and 12x more spare time cos the 'Spill is really firing just now.

FP said...

Love him. He did a wonderful version of Joni's River as well. Think it's on deezer.

treefrogdemon said...

I like him too, ToffeeBoy. He was in the most recent series of Transatlantic Sessions, my favourite programme, and he was dead good.

Thanks for these tracks - I have to go to bed now but I'll surely listen tomorrow!

goneforeign said...

Agreed on all counts and when I read this, Paul Simon pops into my thoughts, don't know how many A's & B's he's got but we don't seem to hear a lot about him either.

goneforeign said...

I lived through and enjoyed the JT beginnings in the US, I hadn't really thought about him at all until this moment so I Wiki'd him and there's a fairly comprehensive page there, it brings at all back. He had a very shaky start with his heroin habit, hospitals and a motorcycle accident, most of which I'd forgotten about.

tincanman said...

Good choice for discussion Toff. You've hit the nail on the head for me - his sound is too MOR for my taste, but he's obviously an accomplished and influential songwriter. I saw him once (girlfriend at the time wanted to) and he was charming and intimate; the music remained soporophic though

barbryn said...

Someone - I can't remember who, or the exact quote - once described James Taylor as the most boring heroin addict in music. Which is obviously a very mean thing to say.

It's nice, I've always liked Fire and Rain (it's one of Mrs Barbryn's all-time favourites), if I see his Greatest Hits or Sweet Baby James in Tesco's for £2.99 or less I will probably buy them. But I've yet to hear anything in music and lyrics to set him apart from any number of other singer-songwriters (although I've just heard the line 'the frost is on the pumpkin', which is a nice choice of image. Not many mentions of pumpkins in popular music)

Chris said...

I'm not really sure it's possible to dislike James Taylor. He has written some great songs and he does have a distictive, attractive voice. He also does some very interesting guitar work. A great talent that, as tfd notes above, is still going strong over thirty years down the track.
If I were trying to find a nit to pick, it would that a lot of JT in one go makes me feel like listening to thrash metal (not a genre I'm particularly keen on but it is noisy and messy). But there's a world of difference between, say, Chris Martin's earnest niceness and the genuine thing from JT. (I wonder when Chris is going to start mainlining? Might improve his songs.)

CaroleBristol said...

Could anything improve Chris Martin's stuff?

sourpus said...

Interestingly, I was never that big a fan. I didnt actively dislike his work or anything like that, but rather saw him as a bit too safe and cosy with itself. I listened to Fire and Rain and found it mournful and self-absorbed, but I guess that was part of its appeal for some. Im obviously destined to sound heretical to many souls here, but still i'd rather listen to a Ron Sexsmith (or even a Steve Forbert)album to be honest.

Shoegazer said...

The bland delivery has always been my problem - you can write the best songs in the world, but if the performance is lifeless, who cares. Will drink a lot of coffee & give your man another go.

ejay said...

I'm on Carolina In My Mind, and it's not bad. So far the melodies aren't bad, but I find his voice and delivery a bit bland. I would probably enjoy covers of songs he's written. I'll be back after I've gone through the list.

ToffeeBoy said...

Hey everybody! Thanks for all the comments. Not a lot I can argue with, apart form not seeing the vocals/delivery as at all bland. Must just be a personal thing - one man's fridge being another woman's dishwasher and all that - but I think there's also (as with so many of these tasks) the very important nostalgia factor to consider. I grew up with James Taylor and his voice played an important part in my adolescent years. It's difficult not to feel 14 again when I listen to some of this stuff.

I guess that most of all what attracts me to James Taylor's music (and again, this has been a recurring theme throughout the Year of Many Tasks) is his beautiful melodies. Take Don't Let Me Be Lonely Tonight for instance: when I listen to that song, I here nothing but melodic magic. The chord changes are beautiful (and I know them inside out as it's one of the songs I play most frequently on the old joanna). The sequence of Em7(9) - A7(6)sus4 - Dmaj7(9) - B7-9/F# which forms the backdrop to the opening line is a dream to play. And the middle eight with its distinctive Bm descent provides a sort of f*ck you relief to the almost desperate air of the verses.

I'm beginning to think that I could have summarised the whole of this year's herculean effort in a single sentence. Melody is joy.

Could have saved us all a lot of trouble ...

ejay said...

Yep, there are some good songs here, that rarely overstay their welcome, but I was crying out for someone like Nina Simone to take them further. I don't dislike it, but it's very very "nice". I'm sure I've heard some of his stuff before, probably in a romantic comedy (I'm thinking Elizabethtown), or in an episode of Taxi, the letters M.O.R. definitely come to mind. I liked Carolina In My Mind, Fire And Rain, September Grass best.
I need to listen to some Busta Rhymes or Wu-Tang Clan after this. Tin, now's the time for that Scooter post.

ToffeeBoy said...

@ ejd :0)

steenbeck said...

Did I ever tell you about the time I waited on James Taylor? That's right, when I lived in Boston his fiancee lived right down the street from the restaurant where I worked, and one time he sat in my section. He wanted sunflower seeds but we only had sesame seeds and he didn't want those. And that's my story about James Taylor.

About his music -- I think there may have been times in my life I listened to his stuff. I don't think I've ever owned an album, but I must have had friends who did, because hearing his music reminds me of certain times and certain people. It does sound sweetly nostalgic. It's a little too "Easy on my ears" for long doses, but brings back nice memories. Good choice, Toffeeboy, thanks.

I think they used FIre and Rain in the movie with River Phoenix and Martha Plimpton...what the heck was it called? Running on Empty? I dunno, maybe I'm wrong.

treefrogdemon said...

Was it The Mosquito Coast? RP & MP were in that.

AliMunday said...

Toffeboy, I used to love this album, my ex had it - reminds me of a certain time and a certain place in my life. Lovely, thank you.

Japanther said...

First time I heard JT was "Fire and Rain" when I watched "Running On Empty" (you are indeed right Steenbeck, a great film too) and I thought it was the most beautiful and meaningful tune. After that my girlf at the time, like most middle-class teenage girls went through a bit of a hippy stage and played the Sweet Baby James album a lot.
I enjoyed listening to this list this afternoon as it brought back fond memories of teenage first love, repeated plays may get a wee bit annoying mind you!

thanks TB!

ToffeeBoy said...

Perhaps I should give myself a new title:

ToffeeBoy - purveyor of nostalgia to the fine people of 'Spill-land.

May1366 said...

I'm another in the camp of never having had a problem with James Taylor but never listening to him in any depth either.
What I will say, TB, is praise is due to you, sir, for using the word "ilk" correctly.

lance stephenson said...

James is one of the most talented singer-songwriters of all time. I saw him in concert a few years ago and he was simply amazing!