thu 28/05/2020

CD: James Taylor, American Standard - a trip down memory lane | reviews, news & interviews

CD: James Taylor, American Standard - a trip down memory lane

CD: James Taylor, American Standard - a trip down memory lane

Leaves from the Great American Songbook

Evergreens that remind us of a kinder, gentler America

“Fire and Rain”. Who doesn’t recall James Taylor’s first number one 50 years ago! Born in Carolina and a “graduate” of the 1960s Greenwich Village music scene, Sweet Baby James has given the world some enduring songs and been part of some of music’s greatest scenes.

“Fire and Rain”. Who doesn’t recall James Taylor’s first number one 50 years ago! Born in Carolina and a “graduate” of the 1960s Greenwich Village music scene, Sweet Baby James has given the world some enduring songs and been part of some of music’s greatest scenes. American Standard is his 19th album, his first in five years, and it’s a refreshing dip into the Great American Songbook – “songs I grew up with that I remember really well, that were part of the family record collection”. As indeed they were for many of us.

This is classy comfort food which will appeal to those familiar with both Ella’s and Rod’s versions of these songs, or perhaps Linda Ronstadt’s or Bob Dylan's, while also making new fans. Taylor eschews the classic Nelson Riddle settings for stripped-down, guitar-based arrangements which showcase the simplicity and charm of the vocal lines, his voice front and centre throughout. At times it’s perhaps a little too easy, if not quite easy listening, but these great songs can withstand reinterpretation and (as with Broadway’s controversial current revival of that greatest of 20th century musicals, West Side Story) it brings the songs to another audience.

There’s swing and shuffle, and laid-back-and bluesy, with some great fiddle and wind solos and brushed percussion. In Taylor’s hands, “Ol’ Man River” is folksy and easy – a far cry from the magisterial Paul Robeson, but none the worse for that, though of course it becomes a different song, uncoupled from history. Similarly, “Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat”: the Guys and Dolls showstopper would rally not a single repentant gambler on this reading! The Great American Songbook offers plenty of choice and Taylor should perhaps have considered some alternates.

Yet his intention throughout is pure, his love for the songs clear. “God Bless the Child”, the Billie Holiday – Arthur Herzog classic, is the stand-out, and what’s not to love about Taylor’s Latin-tinged “Nearness of You” by Hoagy Carmichael, trumpet and bongos bringing winter sunshine. As for “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught”, the old chestnut from South Pacific acquires a whole new meaning in 2020: "You've got to be taught/ To hate and to fear."

American Standard takes us back to a kinder, gentler America. The real America in which Taylor came of age. Escape to it for a while.

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