Friday, May 20, 2011

James Taylor & Carole King reunite, incite JT nostalgia


By Jon Stone | @jwstone

James Taylor and Carole King touring together again is a pretty big deal. They'll be in Chicago on May 24th at the AllState Arena as part of their "Troubadour Reunion Tour". The last time they team-toured was back in 1971 when Sweet Baby James and Tapestry exploded in sweet, sunshiny goodness upon the American airwaves. These two now-classic albums would have a paradoxical effect on one another. On one hand,  Sweet Baby James with the title track (my favorite JT song) as well as “Fire and Rain,” and “Country Roads” would be heard and learned by many a suburban boy and sung to woo many a suburban girl.  And then Tapestry, with that incredible three-song opening (“I Feel the Earth Move,” “So Far Away,” and “It’s Too Late”) was there for the girls when the moon-dust would wear off into one heartbreak or another, or they would realize that their dearest could neither play or sing like James Taylor—whichever came first.  (And, of course, vice versa, lest we succumb to the pitfalls of gender stereotyping here.)

All this is to say that I really love James Taylor (and Carole King, but it's JT that's got me thinking). My parents were those 1971 suburban kids. When I eventually joined the party, we would listen to JT albums in the car on the long drives up canyons to yonder fishing holes. Those songs stuck, and even as a teenager with all that brit-pop and alterna-distortion I was into, I had my JT Greatest Hits safely in the collection. Seriously, who doesn’t have that album? (It’s been Diamond certified and has sold over 20 million copies.)

I’ve been trying to figure something out, though -- and feel free to chime in here. From where I stand, it doesn’t really seem like James Taylor has penetrated into the current cultural spheres of musical influence the way, say, Neil Young has. Granted, JT is a different kind of artist than Young—with, arguably, a greater "mass-audience" appeal, which can sometimes damage critical credibility.  He’s been more (gasp!) commercially successful and, perhaps worst of all, as a result has been marooned on that lonely island of “adult-contemporary” rock. I mean, if I hear “Carolina in My Mind” at the grocery store on a regular basis, no need to go home and listen to the record, right?  All this, compounded by the addition of back-up singers in the mid 80s -- major yuppie points there -- is, perhaps the reason you don’t hear Robin Pecknold or Justin Vernon citing him as an influence.

But, despite the back-up singers, I don’t think it’s a justified oversight.  I think that he has been more influential than may first meet the eye, as a guitar player (he makes it look effortless) and certainly as one of the most successful singer-songwriter acts, like, ever. During the 70s, he produced a long string of quality records that included some famous (and less-famous) collaborations including Carole King, Joni Mitchell, Carly Simon, David Crosby, Graham Nash, Stevie Wonder, Bonnie Raitt, Paul Simon and even Paul McCartney (Taylor, as is likely well-known, was one of the first artists signed to the Beatles’ Apple label and remains a friend and favorite of McCartney’s). He's had musical ups and downs, personal successes and failures; he’s been hospitalized several times for depression and drug addiction over the years (he finally kicked the methadone habit in the early 80s) -- other recording artists have had lower lows and still maintained their critical ethos. But his body of work, taken as a whole, is remarkable, and should be given the credit it's due.

For those of you only familiar with his grocery store hits, I urge you to delve a bit deeper into that back catalog.  Here are a few places to start:

Don’t be Sad Cause Your Sun is Down” is a sweet little tune co-written by Stevie Wonder who also provides backing on harmonica (it's pretty obscure though, so let lala give you your one free listen).  It’s on JT’s In the Pocket (1976)  which features many of those collaborations I was speaking of above. Other tunes to check out here are “Nothing Like a Hundred Miles” and “Golden Moments.”

Millworker” from the 1979 record Flag is a classic. Not only does it show off Taylor’s ability as a songwriter, but it also is a window into his political ideologies and support for blue-collared America.  It apparently struck a chord as it’s been covered by the likes of Springsteen, Emmylou Harris, and even Eddie Vedder

Frozen Man” from 1991's New Moon Shine is another songwriting gem--this one the imagined back-story of a dude they pulled out of the frozen tundra. It's in my top five favorite JT tunes.

Finally, Taylor's two most recent releases of original tunes (he's put out a few covers records more recently), 1997's Hourglass and 2002's October Road are evidence that he's back on the top of his game. Nearly every song on these two records resonate and teach the way you might expect a journeyman's music to.  I remember listening to Hourglass's "Enough to Be On Your Way" when I was 19 and thinking-- wow, this is what adulthood must feel like.  It encapsulates the bitter-sweetness of divergent paths as the lyrics reflect on the loss of an old friend. 

October Road offers a dozen other songs in this vein--songs about remembering, songs about forgetting, songs about honoring and hoping. My favorite here didn't really sink in until Taylor released a live concert collection called One Man Band (2007-- and if you're looking for a good live collection of the best JT songs, this is the one. It's just him and a great pianist.) The song is "Traveling Star" and instead of the hip-swaying back-up singers that I tend to cringe at, Taylor manages an on-stage, prerecorded video sync with a choir from his hometown.  For me this is the epitome of Sunday afternoon music--my wife and I reading on the couch, kids occupied quietly (yeah, right) somewhere. Our lives passing happily, slowly; but not too slowly.

I can't promise anything more than soft rock here, folks. But despite its softness, it's meant something to me. I think you'll also find some depth and wisdom here-- more, at least, than you might find wandering the grocery store.

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