AMERICAN STANDARD: Tradition at its Finest

from Issue 13

At nearly seventy-two years old, the Massachusetts-born legend, James Taylor, still has quite a lot of life left—as evident in his music. This past Friday, he released a collection of his favorite songs from the times in which he grew up, and after deliberation, lovingly named the collection American Standard—a fitting name for two reasons: “These are American songs and Standards, for sure. Also, when we were growing up, we had a kitchen sink with that name glazed into [it].”

In listening to the opening tracks of this album for the first time, I could not prevent a smile from spreading onto my face. Taylor sings almost as effortlessly as he did in his thirties. Oh, for sure, the age in his voice is evident, but that is masked quickly by the joy that he brings to his recordings—something that not many artists these days can do.

The album starts out with Taylor crooning the first few bars of “My Blue Heaven” before being joined by his seasoned band*, launching a listener into a magical world of happiness—the proverbial sunshine and rainbows that the fifties often provided. After the wonderful opener, the band is greatly reduced for a sparse and nearly tear-inducing rendition of “Moon River,” completed by a melodica solo.

*Steve Gadd on the drums, Jimmy Johnson on the electric bass, Viktor Krauss on the upright bass, Larry Goldings on the keyboards, and, most importantly, John Pizzarelli, who helped arrange the album and contributed guitars. Also appearing are Walter Fowler, trumpeter, and Lou Marini, saxophonist.

Two of the singles released prior to the album appear next: “Teach Me Tonight,” refurbished with a Latin groove, and “As Easy as Rolling off a Log,” a sickly-sweet love tune from which Taylor somehow seems to erase the sickliness and replace it with almost-cute whistling. Next is “Almost like Being in Love,” which he has performed live. One of the weaker tracks, “Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat,” still excels in arrangement, but Taylor’s voice does not lend itself to the story of a didactic nightmare. Ending the first half of the album is a reprise of the Latin groove introduced earlier with “The Nearness of You.” All is back to normal as he declares love for some unknown lady—or is she unknown? The whole album is lovingly dedicated to his wife, Caroline. “Sine Qua Non…”

The second half of the album opens with a “Sweet Baby James”-inspired arrangement of “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught,” a song that Trudie, Taylor’s mother, brought home with her from her work in the civil rights movement. The lyrics here are punctuated with perfect cello and celesta lines. The third single from the album appears next: a half-depressing song entitled “God Bless the Child,” which is complemented by the masterful dobro-picking of Jerry Douglas (longtime member of Alison Krauss and the Union Station). “Pennies from Heaven” regales the listener with that lovely tune one might know from the classic holiday flick Elf, although—may I argue?—this version is much more palatable to the ears, as it brings Taylor’s whole ensemble together.

Once again, the Latin groove brought to prominence on side one has returned for “My Heart Stood Still.” At this point, it seems as if the most important love songs on the album have Latin-inspired tracks, yet it does not become an old schtick that easily. Along with that groove, one can hear Taylor’s playing, chock-full of his signature mini-riffs, arranged perfectly for him and a violin to share. “Ol’ Man River” finds Taylor exploring both sides of the limits of his voice in the chorus, accompanied only by guitars and bass, making for a reminiscent arrangement and the most soulful song on this album by far. “It’s Only a Paper Moon” is the penultimate track on the album and the last one to feature the motif of the Latin groove. His wife must really like bossa nova…Care to dance? Besides that, the nouveau-James Taylor harmonies that permeate previous releases such as October Road and Before This World appear here along with an unusually ambient harp in the solo section. To close the album, his sparse version of Oklahoma!’s “The Surrey with the Fringe On Top” explores urgency, love, and a feature of Caroline Taylor, leaving me, at least, with a smile on my face as the album ends.

Overall, James Taylor has worked with the finest of the fine to make one of the greatest albums one will hear in 2020. I encourage everyone to buy the Barnes & Noble version of this album ( because, like that particular pressing, this album is pure gold.

Rating: 9.5/10