When an artist has finally achieved success he is subjected to the kind of critical evaluation which will either legitimize that success or destroy it. Today, the consensus seems to be that this is the season for the demolition of James Taylor. It is the sheer vastness of his success which condemns him, somehow, even to his partisans. By comparison his less talented fellow chart-busters like Led Zeppelin, Grand Funk in fact, almost anyone get off easily.
There are both good and bad reasons for James' popularity in the first place. Like... Read More
Chuck Berry. Bob Dylan, and the Band. James is one of that rare species which perfectly synthesizes the white and black strains of American music. His singing has the high. lonesome quality of Appalachian music it is a flat, undemonstrative style which, nevertheless, bespeaks great emotion while his songs, in their harmonic sophistication, owe more to Cole Porter than to Frank Proffitt. His embellishment of a melody line is almost always bluesy: his blues and gospel performances. although not authentic in the literal sense, are confident and, if a little ironic, still convincing.
But if these things, along with a melodic and lyrical beauty and accessibility, recommend James to a substantial audience, there are less respectable qualities which helped put him over the top. He is the purveyor of a fashionable soft sound. James is asked to participate in Lincoln Center's Great Performers Series and appears on the cover of Time as the "cooling of America" 's mascot. He represents no political challenge or challenge to a life style.
From this camp, there are different insidious ways in which James is exploited. I wonder whether people would quite accept his songs on sunshine, blue skies, etc., were it not for the psychological gloom from which these images spring. The madman is a modern romantic figure is the insane man in the insane society. Tom Rush graduated from Harvard; Taylor, Boston's biggest folkie since Rush, is an alumnus of McLean Hospital. Both credentials are telling in their way.
It wouldn't be necessary to state all this if it weren't for the fact that these ruminations are, also, the subject of Mud Slide Slim and the Blue Horizon. Coming after one of the Sixties' tastiest records (James Taylor on Apple) and his subsequent re-Americanization (Sweet Baby James), Mud Slide Slim broods about James Taylor, songster and runaway phenomenon, and expresses his ambivalence and impotence in the face of it all.
Musically, Mud Slide Slim is a continuation of Sweet Baby James. It maintains Russ Kunkel on drums, Carole King on piano, and Danny Kootch on guitar, so the album is superficially similar-sounding to his previous effort. Yet the steel guitar is absent, Kootch's driving electric guitar appears on only three of the album's 13 cuts, and the tempi are moderate. The first few times through, it is dull listening; once the melodies begin to sink