The first time I ever heard of James Taylor, it was the mid 90s, I was a teenager, and he appeared on the episode of The Simpsons where Homer becomes an astronaut. I was so unfamiliar with him, I didn’t even know it was a celebrity cameo until years later when the song he sang in that episode popped up somewhere else. In the years since, Taylor in general, and that song in particular, have popped up constantly. It’s been a couple of decades now since I’ve know who he is and that he’s a bit of a folk legend, but I’ve still never voluntarily listened to a second of his music. Until now, with Sweet Baby James.
Gentle and flowing and soothing and easy on the ear, the opening, title track is exactly what I expected from James Taylor and Sweet Baby James based on the very limited amount of second hand information and exposure I’ve had to him. That might sound dismissive, and it’s kind of meant to. I in no way dislike the song, but it doesn’t really excite me either.
The slight country spin given to Lo and Behold makes a world of difference. This is a song I could actually imagine listening to again, once this review is done and dusted. While Sunny Skies sounds like a parody of soft, wet, toothless folk songs. But given Taylor’s legacy and vintage, I’m sure this is song is at least the originator, not a cheap imitation of soft, wet, toothless folk songs.
Which makes the dirty blues, soul Hammond organ of Steamroller a real surprise, and a welcome one at that. So is Country Road. On paper, the only difference between this and the blandness of Sweet Baby James is the addition of a piano and rhythm section. But I’ll be buggered if that piano, bass and drums don’t inject enough life and energy to make all the difference. Forget soft, wet and toothless. Ol’ Jimmy T sounds like he means the shit he’s singing here on Country Road.
Fire and Rain… It’s pretty good here, I guess. But it’s a whole lot more entertaining when you get just a few seconds in the middle of an episode of The Simpsons. That’s harsh, because this is a really good song. The only problem is, the two minutes of Oh, Susanna that is basically a long, drawn out intro to Fire and Rain takes some of the shine off the latter before it even gets going.
But the record starts to redeem itself with the ballad country sound of Anywhere Like Heaven. Taylor’s voice might be a bit to pretty and nice to ever sound like it’s been many places or done many things, but the country vibe adds an undeniable weariness that makes this one of the album’s real highlights.
Sometimes, a preconception built on a very limited amount of second hand information and exposure is all you need. Because that one short scene in an episode of The Simpsons 20 odd years ago really did give me an accurate idea of what to expect form James Taylor and Sweet Baby James. It’s gentle and flowing and soothing and easy on the ear and as middle of the road as a lane divider.