Injustice, in case you were wondering, has existed in every age. The late ‘60s were no exception. First, there was Richard Nixon’s election. Nearly as egregious? James Taylor’s virtually-ignored 1969 debut. Perhaps, as with Nixon, this all had to do with the times. This was, after all, a country deafened by the screams of protest and scored by tunes from those thunderous twits Iron Butterfly. Nobody seemed ready for songs that betrayed the musical sophistication of Hoagy Carmichael and were as sad as the poems of Sylvia Plath. Throw in Taylor’s patented finger-picking and pacific singing and you had quite the anomaly. Perhaps the re-release of JT’s Apple debut (recorded when he was 20 freakin’ years old!), will set the CD straight.
You know the most famous songs here: “Carolina In My Mind,” “Something In The Way She Moves” (which George Harrison nicked the title of for “Something”) and “Night Owl,” but it seems these songs didn’t click with hippies until Taylor started playing the tunes solo, live. One wonders why.
One guess is that it was the arrangements that gave people pause. The record fairly shimmers with strings, horns and voices, courtesy of arranger Richard Hewson. In most cases, they work gloriously. Whether it’s Hewson’s heartbreaking orchestral reprise of “Circle ‘Round The Sun,” or the melancholy brass on “Brighten Your Night With My Day,” such embellishments easily match similarly baroque experiments by The Beatles or Love. When Hewson uses jazzy voices to depict mental illness on “Knockin’ ‘Round The Zoo,” however, its ghastly, veering too close to cracked muzak.
Still, these are quibbles. Taylor’s sonorous pipes, jazz-inspired guitar and world-weary lyrics are fully extant here. Plus, in the bonus cuts, there are hints as to where he was headed the following year. There’s a loose, lovely “Sunny Skies” displaying hints of the haiku-like spareness that would soon bewitch listeners on Sweet Baby James.
In the next few years, Taylor would click big time with burnt-out activists, who were starting to navel gaze, in search of more personal stories. But, if you dig the man’s classic American songwriting, which took flight after his “sweet dreams and flying machines” came crashing down, this is where James Taylor, so magnificently, began picking up all the pieces.