Tuesday, April 23, 2013

103. Sweet Baby James. Odd title.

Album: Sweet Baby James
Artist: James Taylor
Year: 1970
Genre: Folk
  1. Sweet Baby James
  2. Lo and Behold
  3. Sunny Skies
  4. Steamroller
  5. Country Road
  6. Oh! Susanna
  7. Fire and Rain
  8. Blossom
  9. Anywhere Like Heaven
  10. Oh Baby, Don't You Loose Your Lip on Me
  11. Suite for 20 G

James Taylor is a folkie with one of the sweetest voices you will find on record. He's the sort of guy who record labels must have heard performing in clubs and fought each other off in order to sign up. It wouldn't have mattered if he couldn't write a tune and enjoyed killing small woodland creatures in between studio sessions, they could sell that voice to the American people.

Fortunately Taylor was an exceptional songwriter (and I assume he never killed a squirrel for laughs, but I could be wrong). Fire and Rain is a great song and not just this album's highlight but the highlight of his entire career. It's a plaintive ballad that talks of suffering and pain and unlike a lot of other songs of woe, it was written by a guy who knew something about sadness. Taylor spent 9 months of his life in a mental institution dealing with crippling depression. Apparently at the height (or more accurately: low) of his illness he was sleeping for twenty hours a day and incapable of doing much for the other four. Fire and Rain deals with his life fighting his feelings and his treatment. Being institutionalised does tend to put the suffering of others into perspective. There are people who have tried to write sad tales about their life because they've been a bit grumpy for an afternoon. They should probably give this album a spin in order to cheer up and find something else to write tunes about.

But Fire and Rain isn't the only thing worth hearing on Sweet Baby James. The title track is a pretty lullaby of sorts which he didn't write for himself (anyone who sleeps 20 hours a day doesn't need a lullaby) but for his nephew who shares his name. The rest of the songs might not be as well-written but they all feature his voice which Taylor uses like a veteran of the studio (although he probably understood studio technique better than most having recorded his debut album in the same studios the Beatles were recording The White Album)

Personally I'm not a fan of Steamroller, which he wrote to satirise white boy blues bands. I like white boy blues bands. I like the Blues and I like it when it's done by guys who try and make it rock and roll. I can appreciate a good satire of the genre (Can Blue Men Sing the Whites? by The Bonzo's is my favourite) but Steamroller just sounds like badly played blues to me and doesn't really work as a parody. Oh Susanna ("don't you cry for me, I come from Alabama with a Banjo on my knee") is a lot more successful and some campy fun.

Sweet Baby James is Taylor's finest moment and captures him still in touch with his folk roots before he became a darling of the middle of the road. It's worth hearing if you think Fire and Rain is all he has to offer. There's a lot more.

Highlight: Fire and Rain
Lowlight: Steamroller

Influenced by: Dylan and Depression
Influenced: Impresarios.

Favourite Amazon Customer Review Quote: "Sweet baby James was the second album by James Taylor released in 1970. It was a very popular album for folk enthusiasts of the time. Unfortunately the cut Steam Roller blues is not original to the album. It is a live version with profanity and bad quality. "

-Steamroller is definitely a live sounding version on the album I heard but this was the first I'd heard of it replacing a studio cut on the original album. Can anyone confirm or deny?

So does this fire up your belly or rain on your parade? Let me know below.

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