Review: James Taylor – Sweet Baby James (Audio Fidelity Remaster)
by S. Victor Aaron
Recorded in the waning days of the 60’s, James Taylor’s second album became one of a handful of albums that defined the pop and rock landscape in the immediate wake of the Beatles’ breakup. Sweet Baby James needs no introduction to just about anyone over the age of 45, but over four decades later, the album still holds up well, and it does by going against a lot of prevailing trends of the time. Rock by the end of the decade had gotten louder, longer and more political. Taylor wasn’t any of those things (and he still isn’t today). In hindsight and put in the context of its turbulent era, it’s a marvel to listen to — this quiet defiance of trends that catapulted Taylor from obscurity to superstardom. And, it transcends the time it was made in.
After a short-lived stint with the Beatles’ Apple Records and a 1968 self-titled debut album that stiffed despite some critical acclaim and two bona fide classic Taylor tunes (“Something In The Way She Moves” and “Carolina On My Mind”), Taylor took manager Peter Asher of Peter and Gordon fame with him to Warner Brothers produce the next album as Asher had done for the first. Effortlessly straddling the divides between folk, blues, gospel and rock, Peter Asher’s production of James put Taylor’s voice, acoustic guitar and his songs well above anything else, including even the star-studded musicians like Carole King, Russ Kunkel, Randy Meisner, and Danny Kortchmar who appear on this record.
Taylor’s no-fuss approach to his craft belies an original and effectual finger picking style, memorable and smooth flowing lyrics, and that warm, slightly nasally croon that can’t be mistaken for anyone else (except, on occasion, with brother Livingston). Those features remain the hallmarks of every Taylor album, but perhaps never illuminated better than on this classic.
Drawing largely from his own experiences, a young life filled with personal tragedies and up until then, only a handful of small triumphs, Taylor’s themes contrasted with the prevailing hippie mindset of eternal sunshine; his resided in darkness but were always reaching for the light. And it does so from a personal point of view instead of making grand, sweeping statements, and people connected with that, attaching to it whatever sweeping or personal statements that they wanted to.
One of Taylor’s many autobiographical songs, and still his best, the #3 Top 40 hit “Fire And Rain” became an anthem for those suffering from 60s fatigue. But that song everyone knows doesn’t alone make this album special. The title song, written for his newborn nephew named after him, is a sweet, cowpoke lullaby-within-lullaby. Gently furbished by Red Rhodes’ steel guitar, Taylor’s lyrics and narration are syllable-perfect; a song that’s as cozy as in front of a lit fireplace on a cold January day.
Taylor also proves to have mastered the blues: The short but rousing “Oh Baby, Don’t You Loose Your Lip On Me” is fun just to hear “poor ol’ JT” get worked up, but “Steamroller Blues,” with its road construction equipment metaphors and such memorable lines as “churning urn of burning funk” was good enough to get Elvis’ attention and turn it into a top 20 hit for himself.
The best deep cuts come from the songs that fit in best with his core, folk/gospel style. “Lo and Behold,” “Sunny Sides” and “Blossom” weren’t hits, but are just as well written as them. And then there’s “Country Road,” (Youtube below) maybe his best deep cut of all time, and a perennial concert favorite.
The lone cover goes farther back, hit or otherwise, than any other cover Taylor would later record: Stephen Foster’s 19th century ditty “Oh, Susannah.” This song merely serves to illuminate what an incredible interpreter Taylor is; armed with only his acoustic six-string, he re-harmonizes it into his own personality without erasing the original melody or meaning of the song.
Coming from vinyl (I grew up listening to this record in the early seventies), the Audio Fidelity remaster realsed last month brings out no dramatic improvements but there are several subtle ones. The horns on “Steamroller Blues” have more punch; the odd bass lines picked from Taylor’s guitar are more noticeable on “Sunny Skies,” as is the cello and Kunkel’s magnificent drum work on “Fire And Rain.” By and large, though, Asher’s light production touch and Bill Lazarus’ quality engineering work already left little room for improvement. The original artwork is all preserved, including the hand written lyrics and several publicity shots of the twenty-one year old revolutionary.
What, wait, James Taylor, a revolutionary? You bet. Sweet Baby James, a simple, unassuming paragon of soft rock, set the stage for a robust period of softer music that attracted a sizeable audience who didn’t want hot licks, booming sonics, pie-in-the-sky optimism or lectures. Just honest, straightforward tunes. Given the continued popularity of James Taylor — amongst the Adult Contemporary music set, at least — it would appear that some people still want those soft, simple things in their music today.
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