CD Review of Covers by James Taylor
Recommended if you like
Paul Simon, Kenny Loggins,
Harry Chapin
Label
Hear Music
James Taylor: Covers

Reviewed by Jeff Giles

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C
over albums are part of a long tradition in rock & roll, but it isn’t an especially proud one; they’re generally regarded as the type of product you push out to remind your fans you’re still alive while you work on scrabbling together enough new material for a “real” album. They might be a step or two above the creative food chain from a live compilation or a greatest hits disc, but only because you’ve got to at least go through the minimal effort of choosing and recording a set of songs in order to make them.

Oh, and speaking of minimal effort, here’s James Taylor, with the most descriptively titled album of the year, Covers.

Taylor’s second set for the formerly Starbucks-affiliated Hear Music label comes on the heels of last year’s acoustic live retrospective One Man Band – which was itself released not long after a best-of and a Christmas collection. If Taylor isn’t careful, he’s going to have nothing left to fall back on the next time he wants to take a decade-long vacation between releases of new material – unless he follows through on his threat to make a regular habit of these Covers collections, but more on that in a minute.

One of Taylor’s largest selling points – and biggest obstacles – has always been his distinctive sound. He’s recorded stripped-down acoustic sets, more produced MOR records, a few vaguely country-sounding tracks, dabbled in Broadway, and more, but no matter what Taylor does, it always sounds pretty much the way you’d expect James Taylor to sound: smooth and easygoing to a fault, with those seemingly effortless vocals spilling over the top. His personal life has been fraught with drama and he’s been through hell more than once, but if all you listen to is the vibe of his music, you’d never know he was anything other than the cuddly-looking grandfather type he’s looked like since the early ‘80s. He’s just one of those artists who can’t get away from himself – and fortunately, he seems to be perfectly okay with that.

James Taylor

Covers, in other words, never had any hope of sounding like anything other than a James Taylor album consisting of songs that just happened to have been written by other people – which is why, more than with most cover projects, song selection was crucial: in order for the album to be any fun, Taylor needed to put his stamp on material that nobody could have seen coming. For instance, who wouldn’t want to hear a James Taylor version of Outkast’s “Hey Ya!” or the Talking Heads’ “Burning Down the House”? They might very well have been dreadful, but they’d at least have been interesting – which is more than can be said for the hoary old chestnuts Taylor settled on for this album. “Hound Dog”? “Summertime Blues”? “On Broadway”? They’re such obvious choices that you’re probably swearing he covered them all years ago.

Still, disappointing as the track listing is, it must be conceded that it’s been awhile since anyone turned to a James Taylor record for surprises, and for Taylor’s fans, Covers will likely offer a sweet, smooth and easygoing trip down memory lane. It also must be said that Taylor deserves credit for recording Covers live in the studio, especially given that he used a full band with a horn section and background singers. If you’ve ever been to one of his concerts, you know they’re virtually flawless, and that same standard applies here – Taylor and his crew attack each song with coolly professional precision, giving everything that patented James Taylor spin.

Taylor has finally started thinking about his next album of new material, but in recent interviews, he’s hinted that he’d like to make an annual tradition out of the sessions that spawned Covers; if this comes to pass, we can only hope he’ll eventually start dipping into less shopworn material. A James Taylor cover of Black Sabbath’s “Iron Man,” anyone?

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