3.5 out of 5 stars
Reviewed for Coffeerooms by Mike Jefferson
If you enjoyed James Taylor's version of Marvin Gaye's "How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You)," then you'll find his latest CD, "Covers," irresistible. JT takes 12 classic and obscure rock gems written by Jimmy Webb, Smokey Robinson, Buddy Holly and others, giving them a sunny, pleasurable gloss.
Taylor has a successful track record for refashioning tunes. In 1974 he and then wife Carly Simon turned "Mockingbird" into a playful give and take that outstripped the original hit by Inez and Charlie Foxx. His other covers have run the gamut of styles from traditional tunes (Stephen Foster's "Oh Susannah" on his iconic "Sweet Baby James" album), to successful ("How Sweet It Is," Carole King's "Up On the Roof" and a remake of Jimmy Jones' "Handy Man"), to taking a song and making it his own (King's "You've Got a Friend"). They've also fallen into the realm of "Gee willickers, James, that was a mistake," (for example, his stumbling version of the Beatles' "Day Tripper" on "Flag").Taylor has an obvious appreciation of R & B, although I can't imagine why a man who shook the music world as an expressive folk balladeer fancies himself the next Marvin Gaye.
Taylor writes in the album's liner notes that he and the dozen musicians featured on "Covers" spent 12 days together in a converted barn in Massachusetts recording in a live setting. You can tell. A collaborative, celebratory air permeates the album: "You get an immediate energy and it's a whole lot of fun," Taylor says. "It sweeps you up and it carries you along and when it's done, it's done." It's a simplistic, but accurate explanation. Taylor's voice sucks you in. The songs, embellished with soft strings, naughty (but not nasty) horns and respectful rhythms tap into your enthusiasm, but won't rock your rheumatism.
"Covers" opens with "It's Growing," a relatively obscure Temptations song. If I was going to pick a Temptations tune to cover, this wouldn't even make the list. It was one of lead singer David Ruffin's lesser-light performances, subtle, charming, and a bit blasé, that didn't take advantage of Ruff's electrifying presence. And maybe that's one of the reasons Taylor singled it out. Taking on one of Ruffin's lesser lights isn't as formidable a task as trying to top the untoppable, like Ruffin's raw grit in "All I Need," or his emotionally draining performance in "I Wish It Would Rain." In Taylor's hands, "It's Growing" bops more, like his own casual composition, "That's Why I'm Here." The horns pop happily, as the back up singers take a prominent role trading vocals with Taylor. "It's Growing" shows Taylor's voice is still an amazing instrument unto itself; Sweet Baby James' tonsils have barely aged in the forty years since his debut album.
"(I'm A) Roadrunner" was famously waxed by Junior Walker, who had few peers when it came to a creating a sax solo that sounded like an out of control Detroit demolition block party. When Humble Pie recorded "(I'm A) Roadrunner" for their best known album, "Smokin'," they slowed the tempo down to a stealthful blues meter and let Steve Marriott channel Steve Winwood on the Hammond. It also helped that the brash Marriot was equipped with one of the best screw you attitudes in the business and had vocal soul to spare. Taylor's version is more akin to Fleetwood Mac's, which utilized former Savoy Brown front man Dave Walker on harp and vocals. Taylor blows out a melodic harp accompaniment, leaving room for the muscular horn section to burst in on cue. Fleetwood Mac's version pounded with a bit more authority, but studio vet Steve Gadd (Paul Simon, Joe Cocker, Eric Clapton), steps up the rhythm and JT displays a soulful comfort with a bawdy belter you wouldn't normally associate with him.
When I saw that one of my all time favorite songs, "Wichita Lineman," was on James' reconstruction list, I tried to stifle my urge to compare the two versions, but it's inevitable. I'm not a fan of Glenn "Aw Shucks" Campbell, but his version of "Wichita Lineman" is the definitive one; it was the ultimate blend of a singer with a perfectly-pitched voice (and excellent pacing), mixed together with a magnificent, weepy score by writer Jimmy Webb. Taylor still gets plenty of mood setting help from keening guitarist Michael Landau, a lighter-than-air violin by Andrea Zonn, and gadzooks he's good brush strokes by Gadd. Taylor's country music via New England diction is more clipped than Campbell's, but his textured lungs display equal ability to hang onto the title line for dramatic effect: "And the Wichita lineman is still on the liiiiine." Campbell's Duane Eddy guitar solo is replaced by a dignified piano solo and a shorter electric guitar picking passage. Without the shimmering strings, James' version still delights, but it lacks Campbell's earnest impact.
"Covers" uncovers three retreads ripe for the rubbish bin. The first cover catastrophe is George Jones' countrified "Why Baby Why." The shuffling honky tonk beat, Hee Haw mentality and sophomoric lyrics will leave you asking "Why James, why?" Nice fiddlin' by Zonn, though.
Morose, hound dog-faced Leonard Cohen will always be known for one thing - somehow getting lucky enough to live with Rebecca De Mornay. No? Having a voice that sounds like a deflating whoopee cushion? Absolutely. But the answer is C, writing "Suzanne," a rambling discourse on love that other artists like to take a whack at. No one's ever recorded a version I ever wanted to listen to twice because Cohen front loaded it with lyrics and forgot to write any music. James' cadence is better than in the other versions I've heard, but the bottom line is despite Taylor's Herculean effort, he can't steer this wordy wreck toward respectability. It's still suicide hotline material. The backing is sparse, with Taylor on acoustic, aided by lonesome cello from Yo Yo Ma and Larry Goldings' lilting piano. I love immersing myself lyrics even more than the music in a song, but there's simply too much being conveyed here, and what's uttered is hopeless and pointless. At one point in his life Cohen retired to a monastery. If he keeps writing oblique odes like "Suzanne" he should be taken to Tibet on the back end of a colicky yak and get stomped by a yeti. Yo Yo mama, Suzanne.
A recitation straight out Clarence Carter's "Patches" opens "Sadie," the album's third unsalvageable dud. "Sadie" is an homage to a woman who's a magnum cum laude graduate of the college of hard knocks. Thick, tight vocal backing and James' say hallelujah vocalizing doesn't hide the fact that "Sadie" is trite trash. "If there's a heaven above, I know she's teaching angels how to love." "Sadie" was written by Joseph Jefferson (no relation, thank you), Charles Simmons and Bruce Hawes, none of whom you're likely to hear from again.
James gets back into a more R & B groove with the fun and frivolous "Some Days You Gotta Dance." It has the boogie shoes beat of Loggins and Messina's more mobile top ten material (like "Your Mama Don't Dance"). There's a little bit of a style clash when the country dance middle eight takes over, but this rocks as hard as any 60-year old musician should.
Originally recorded by country D-lister John Anderson, Zonn's' sweeping fiddle serves as the fulcrum for "Seminole Wind." Sawed in small doses, a fiddle can give a song an Americana/roots atmosphere along the lines of songs by Gordon Lightfoot or The Band. "Seminole Wind" is the positive flip side of Lightfoot's "Cherokee Bend," the tragic story of a persecuted Indian father denigrated in front of his son. "Go Go Seminole wind, go like you never gonna go again. Coming to you like a long lost friend, I know who you are." It's the best song on the album and is perfectly suited for James' laid-back, rich delivery.
In recreating "Hound Dog," Taylor smartly avoids Elvis' high powered version, adopting more of Big Mama Thornton's gritty, bluesy original. Goldings skates in with a high end organ solo that leads into Landau's B.B. King-like picking. Taylor is clearly enjoying himself, slipping and sliding through the lyrics with the doggish charm of Big Joe Turner. I thought New Englander James might be a little too stiff to pull this off - but this hound dog can sure wag its tail.
Taking on "On Broadway" seems like another mistake on paper. (Is there anybody in the music business who hasn't sung this?). "On Broadway" is simply too well written to be performed badly. George Benson jazzed and scatted his way through an impressive top ten version in 1978. Taylor's rendition is more Darvon-induced than the original done by The Drifters. There's an instrumental break that sounds like a cross between the theme song for Sanford and Son and War's "Summer" (think low rider, laid-back funk) that'll stick in your memory. Its well done a well done take, but unnecessary.
Thanks to The Who's thrashing version, many FM listeners growing up in the 70s forgot that Eddie Cochran's acoustic original of "Summertime Blues" had just as much attitude. Taylor's "Summertime" is somewhere between the two. It proceeds at mid-tempo, and as a result, sounds a bit kitschy, lacking the other two artists' intensity. With a jokey arrangement lifted from Huey (Dewey) and the News' "Hip To Be Square," Taylor's summertime sounds like he spent his hot free days at the beach palling around with Jimmy Buffett. Still, it's enthusiastic, mindless keg party fun.
The horn section drives "Not Fade Away, with Landau providing a stirring aside on slide. Like his version of "Summertime Blues" Taylor pretties this up. It's punchy, upbeat and percussive. The Dead's version was one of the few instances where they weren't, well, dead, and Buddy Holly's original version cracked with a lock step, knee-bending beat. The Sutherland Brothers revved up the song's shave-and-a-haircut beat with searing solos by guitarist Tim Renwick and fast-paced vocals that threatened to disintegrate (but didn't), making their version a breathless joy. Taylor's version omits the one absolutely necessary component - that bomp-bomp-bomp-bomp Bo Diddley beat. Without it, Taylor's version doesn't fade away, but sounds a bit off.
Taylor might have covered more ground if he'd avoided the obvious and gone after more obscure and fitting tunes like "Seminole Wind" and "Some Days You Gotta Dance." But one thing James has always been, and remains, is a crowd pleaser, and for his most ardent fans this optimistic, nearly spotless set of covers will hold them over until JT pens some new original material. Steven Gadd adds unexpected punch to the songs, giving Taylor the added oomph he needs to sound like a sage soul man, instead of a dour folky. Personally, I preferred somber "Sweet Baby James" to happy, R & B-embracing JT, but it's unlikely we'll ever see James reign in that type of personal intensity again.
"Covers" validates what fans of JT have known for many years - this guy's biggest asset is his voice, perfectly "taylored" to please.