CD Review of One Man Band by James Taylor
Recommended if you like
Gordon Lightfoot, Carole King,
Lyle Lovet
Label
Hear Music
James Taylor: One Man Band

Reviewed by Jeff Giles

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I
t’s a few weeks shy of being over, but it nevertheless seems safe to say that 2007 will go down in music history as being the year that artists finally started fleeing the sinking ship known as the major-label system. From McCartney to Madonna to Radiohead, the last twelve months have been full of stories about musicians striking out on their own or forging groundbreaking licensing deals – and lost in the shuffle, somewhere between Joni Mitchell and Nine Inch Nails, has been the news of James Taylor ending a 30-year relationship with Columbia Records to head out on his own.

This is fudging a bit – Taylor’s free-agent period actually started a couple of years ago, with the release of a Hallmark-exclusive Christmas album – but that eventually came out on Columbia, and this CD/DVD combo release will be available pretty much everywhere, so we’re drawing the line with One Man Band. Taylor’s inaugural release for Hear Music – the Starbucks-affiliated label that is now also home to McCartney and Mitchell – is a retrospective, but with a twist: A batch of his classics are given the live treatment, in front of a hometown audience in Pittsfield, MA, and Taylor is accompanied (mostly) only by Larry Goldings on piano.

KMFDMOf course, Taylor released the double-album (Live) in 1993, and he’s only completed two albums since then, so there’s plenty of overlap between that collection and this one – but to entice the faithful, he’s included a two-hour DVD of the show, expanded to include stories and recollections about the songs. It’s kind of like VH1 Storytellers, and it works brilliantly.

Since his 1970s commercial peak, “James Taylor” has become shorthand for “sensitive singer/songwriter,” both for better and for worse; his easy melodies and clear, seemingly effortless vocals suggest an artistry borne of cheap sentiment and Hal Leonard songbooks. It’s easy to forget that his songs have any emotional weight, but quite a few of them do – and Taylor reminds you of that here, filling in the gaps around tunes such as “Never Die Young” and “My Traveling Star” while rescuing them from the often-suffocating production of their studio counterparts.

The usual suspects are here – Taylor’s smart enough to know that a live album without “Fire and Rain,” “You’ve Got a Friend,” and “Carolina in My Mind” won’t move many units – but nestled among them are a few nuggets from his deeper cuts, including “The Frozen Man,” “Chili Dog,” and “You Can Close Your Eyes.” At 19 songs in length, it’s just long enough to come reasonably close to encompassing his career, while still being short enough to avoid boredom. He’s got a number of best-of compilations on the shelves, but if you aren’t too wedded to the versions you’ve heard on the radio, One Man Band might even work as a “greatest hits”-type introduction to Taylor’s catalog.

If you’ve already got the studio albums, you’ll still want to pick this up; for $17.98, Taylor and Hear Music are giving consumers plenty of entertainment value for their dollars. Unlike quite a few of the increasingly common CD/DVD packages, One Man Band functions equally well in either format – whether you’re watching it or listening to it, it offers a pleasant reminder of why Taylor sold all those albums in the first place. Next time you’re waiting to order a latte at your neighborhood Starbucks, grab a copy from the rack. You won’t be sorry.

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