James Taylor: Sweet Baby James (Warner Bros.)
JAMES TAYLOR was the first artist signed to the Beatles’ Apple label, and ironically, the first to leave it as well. While there, he produced an album so effective in its understatement that it went almost unnoticed.
Since then he has drifted into the waiting arms of the Warner/Reprise empire (which is beginning to look like a haven for dispossessed artists) for whom he has produced this second album. I’m glad to report that this new album is as beautiful as the first. Glad for myself, because a visit from Mr. Taylor is always welcomed.
I must admit that Sweet Baby James took me nearly by surprise. Taylor’s work has a marvelous capacity for growth, a time-release quality, so much so that upon the arrival of this album I was still very much captivated by the Apple disc. If he had never produced another thing, I am of the opinion that his first release would go on sustaining itself (and me) forever.
But the new album is here and it serves to reinforce the picture of Taylor we got from his initial effort. His songs present a vivid portrait of the man. Indeed, no division between the two can be made. Those who know him will readily testify to this fact. All his compositions are statements of personal experience, and they move on a gentle stream of lyrical and melodic grace. One can discuss the eclectic content of Taylor’s material, but the end product is always Taylor himself.
The quality that first drew me to Taylor’s music was its pleasant tranquilizing effect. He can work wonders with aching heads battered by barrages of Marshal amps. His quiet self-assurance asserts itself in such a way as to command subtly the listener’s emotional attention. When William Congreve said "music hath alarums to calm the savage beast" he must have been talking about James Taylor. Even on the places on his first album where the accompaniment seemed excessive this quality shone through, ample witness to his stylistic mastery.
Sweet Baby James differs from the Apple record significantly in only one respect: production. The articulate simplicity of his approach is now matched by arrangements that are more compatible with his style: things are in a more proper perspective. The emphasis is on Taylor’s voice and guitar, exactly where it should be. The instrumentation directs you toward Taylor instead of merely adding to him. The one possible exception, "Streamroller", is really only a good-natured parody anyway, so that’s okay.
Every song here possesses Taylor’s soothing characteristics, so the feeling of flow from one cut to another may lead some to a feeling of repetition, even from the first album to the second. Yet this is only Taylor’s highly developed and personal style, and within the framework of that style he goes through many changes. Observe 'Suite For 20G'. It begins simply, but the rhythmical pattern changes almost with every verse as added instrumentation is brought in. The subtlety and refinement of his style gives him the flexibility to put these changes across painlessly.
The song which has most captivates me at the present time is "Fire And Rain". The arrangement and subdued accompaniment (piano, drums) provide an unobtrusive backdrop for the proper emphasis on Taylor’s restrained delivery. It is the perfect illustration of subtle impact. And the lyrics ("Just yesterday morning they let me know you were gone/Susan the plans they made put an end to you/I walked out this morning and wrote this song/I just can’t remember who to send it to") typify the powerful simplicity that dominates his lyrical style. It is an addictively beautiful song, the kind you return to again and again.
Last summer James talked about the possibility of recording half of this album live. Although it never happened. I am hoping he keeps this possibility in mind. A live recording would concisely demonstrate the way he can capture and channel an audience’s sentiments and responses although he was cut to fifteen minutes, he still managed to dominate the 1969 Newport Folk Festival. Hopefully George Wein will do considerably better by him this next time around.
The album should bring him some of the recognition due an artist of his sensitivity and magnitude. Those who found his Apple album an unqualified joy will enjoy Sweet Baby Jameseven more. Time will undoubtedly prove James Taylor to be the most important young singer/songwriter to emerge in the latter '60s. When Derek Taylor wrote, in his liner notes for the Byrds' Turn, Turn, Turn album, "Give this album to grumpy uncles for Christmas. It will help", he was citing a quality that could be far more aptly applied to James Taylor. He’s that kind of artist, and Sweet Baby James is that kind of album. James Taylor is a permanent resident in my home. Yours too, I hope.
© Ben Edmonds, 1970