Thursday, July 3, 2014

"Sweet Baby James" by James Taylor (February, 1970)

Dad's Take:

Early seventies music was largely defined by the singer-songwriter, and it's easy to argue that James Taylor was the king of the genre. Sweet Baby James is the first of nine consecutive Top 20 albums for JT, seven of them Top 10.

Building on a base of folk and pop, with a little rock and a touch of country, James Taylor was one of the dominant players on the airwaves of the time. This is the album that introduced him to most people, although it was his second album. "Fire and Rain" was a #3 hit, and "Country Road" also charted in the Top 40. Although not released as a single at the time, "Sweet Baby James" has become one of Taylor's most-beloved tunes.

Those who know Taylor mostly for his hits will have plenty to discover here. The highlight here is, of course, "Fire and Rain," one of the truly great songs in this genre, full of angst and hidden meanings and sorrow and and regret and even a little hope. Try not to sing along. Just try. Even if you don't know the words, chances are you'll try. He even makes the kind of silly traditional song "Oh Susannah" sound deep and important. "Suite for 20 G," which would feel at home on a Crosby Stills & Nash record, is another highlight that you might not know, one I could easily listen to at twice its length. The jam has just started when the song comes to an end, leaving me wanting more.

There are no real surprises here. James Taylor sounds like James Taylor: smart, mellow, melodic soft rock delivered with his velvety voice. Even when he stretches beyond the soft tunes with a song like the bluesy "Steamroller" and "Oh Baby Don't You Loose Your Lip On Me," he still sounds like you expect him to sound.

And that's not a bad thing. The album is a solid effort that sets the tone for much of the first half of the decade. And he didn't stop there. In fact, he's had three albums peak at #4 in the 2000s. Almost everything he's ever done has gone gold or platinum. As far as breakout albums go, Sweet Baby James is tough to beat.

Brad's Take:

Like my old man said, this sounds like James Taylor. And I agree that that's not a bad thing. We haven't reviewed a James Taylor album yet so it's cool that I am finally listening to a complete album of his rather than just whatever song is on in the grocery store.

Sweet Baby James doesn't pack much of a punch like the Simon and Garfunkel album that we reviewed just before this did, but I can still enjoy this. It's a lot more stripped down and bouncy, and should probably be listened to in a field of flowers.

The bluesy "Steamroller" is a nice change of pace. It definitely has the punch I was missing. When the full band popped in about a minute into the song, I got really excited because moments before that, I was thinking to myself, "Man, I wish this song wasn't just him on a guitar. It needs some drums and bass." And then that's when all the other instruments came in.

"Fire and Rain" is a classic song, and it's probably the one I've heard the most by him. Like my dad said, it's a song that you can't help but sing along with. It's completely true. I'm going to have "I've seen fire and I've seen rain" stuck in my head for awhile today.

By the time I got to "Suite for 20 G," I was feeling a little restless and eager for the album to be over. But this song got me excited again. It goes from a standard James Taylor sounding song and then it gets to the halfway point and becomes a big funky jam with horns and a contagious bass riff. There wasn't anything else like this that on the album which is kind of a bummer. 

The story behind the titling of the song "Suite for 20 G" is pretty entertaining. James was promised $20,000 once the album was finished and delivered. He needed one more song so he strung together three unfinished songs into a "suite," and completed the album.

All in all, Sweet Baby James was a mostly enjoyable listen. His vocal range is very monotonous across the entire thing, which can get a little boring, but the actual songs were good and some of them were really enjoyable.

"Bridge Over Troubled Water" by Simon & Garfunkel (January, 1970)

Dad's Take:

If there were cracks in the relationship between Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel while this album was being recorded, you wouldn't know it by the harmonious sound of the record. But Simon was concentrating on music while Garfunkel was building an acting career, and this album, which resulted in two Grammys and hours and hours of airplay would turn out to be their last.

The title song was a megahit, topping charts around the world, but it's not the only hit on the record. "The Boxer" was also a huge success. Two other songs, "Cecilia" and "El Condor Pasa (If I Could)" were successful enough to make most groups happy, but seem like minor successes when compared to the other two.

"Bridge Over Troubled Water" is one of those instant classic songs, one of those recordings that seems superhuman. The beautiful track, the ethereal vocals, and the meaningful lyrics combine into a song that defies mortality. Hard to believe that Art Garfunkel really didn't want to sing it, thinking it should be performed by Paul Simon. The song is so nearly perfect that considering anything different than what they gave us is almost impossible.

Next up is "El Condor Pasa (If I Could)," which can be seen as the beginning of Simon's obsession with world music. It's among my favorite Simon & Garfunkel songs, despite not being an original composition. That's followed by "Cecilia," a faster song that was almost inescapable on 1970 radio. Not among my favorites, it is another classic. Three songs in and this is feeling like a greatest hits album.

The next two songs aren't known as well. The Everly-Brothers-like "Keep The Customer Satisfied" is a fun song, a big production that reminds me a little of Simon's "Kodachrome," which would become a big hit in 1973. Then we get another sweet ballad, "So Long, Frank Lloyd Wright, a samba featuring Art Garfunkel, before the next big hit, "The Boxer."

It took more than 100 hours in several studios to record "The Boxer." The result is astounding, another classic song that everybody knows.

The rest of the album features songs that are not as well known, but are certainly worth listening to. There's not a bad song on the album. "Baby Driver" is an enjoyable upbeat story song with fun harmonies. "The Only Living Boy in New York," "Why Don't You Write Me," the live Every Brothers cover of "Bye Bye Love," and the closer, "Song For The Asking," along with the side's opener, "The Boxer," combine into one of the truly great album sides, something that is missed on CD or when listened to from computer files.

This is one of those records that anybody who is interested in folk rock and in harmonies and song writing and singing and, well, just music, should know. No album will be loved by everyone, but there are some records that are just good to know, whether you love it or not. This is one of those.

You have to hand it to Simon & Garfunkel. They might have recorded only five albums, but every one of them is great, and they went out big. This is a nearly perfect record.

Brad's Take:

Sometimes when you go into an album you've never heard before, especially from an era that you're not very familiar with, you don't really know what to expect, and that can be kind of intimidating. When I hit the play button and jumped into Bridge Over Troubled Water, I was immediately into it.

How can you deny these vocals? Both of them sing beautifully together. Whether it's quietly sung or when they're belting it out, they sound amazing.

The title track is especially gorgeous. Not just vocally, but also musically. I love the slow, really quiet stripped down beginning of the song, and how it builds and builds and builds into this huge dramatic ending. It's really powerful, and definitely one that I will go back to again.

Another song I loved right off the bat was "Keep The Customer Satisfied." It's a very fun and upbeat tune. Musically, it's very early-Beatles-esque. I especially love when the horns come in strong at the end of the song. So good! When you compare this song to "Bridge Over Troubled Water," you can see the full range Paul and Art have together, creatively. Whether it's slow or upbeat, they nail it.

One thing I love about this album is although they're technically a folk group, they layer all these different instruments over the finger-picked acoustic guitars, and the songs sound so much more full and exciting. The pop and rock elements really make Simon and Garfunkel's folk music stand out. I'm not sure if that was their co-producer's doing or if Paul Simon had it all figured out in his head that the songs would sound this way, but whoever is responsible deserves a Grammy. Oh wait, they got two Grammy awards for this album. Boom!

Basically, this album encompasses all of the genres that were popular at this time, but they spice it up with great production, songwriting, lyrics, and beautiful vocal harmonies throughout the entire record. Some songs are slow, some are fast, but somehow they are all perfect.