Taylor's singing and the accompaniment are top notch.
Jon Lusk 2009-01-20
A revered singer/songwriter for over four decades, James Taylor has certainly earned the right to try his hand at a whole album of other peoples' songs. The most surprising thing about Covers is how familiar most of the material is. And while not all of it is obviously – ahem – tailored to this artist, or really needs (re)covering, Taylor's singing and the accompaniment are top notch.
His Band Of Legends are slick without being over-polished, providing him with cooing backing vocals, tasteful piano, fiddle and occasional dashes of brass. Aside from country, folk, rock 'n' roll and one show tune, there’s a surprising number of soul classics. All the songs date from the 50s, 60s
and 70s, so it's not simply a showcase for his formative influences.
Accusing Taylor of being MOR is like complaining about rain being wet, so long-term fans will know not to expect rough edges. Things only threaten to catch fire on Summertime Blues and a surprisingly effective Not Fade Away.
The challenge of tackling well-known pieces is that they will inevitably suffer by comparison with classic versions, unless an artist manages to put their own stamp on them. Taylor pulls this off artfully on Rogers & Hammerstein's Oh What A Beautiful Mornin'. The wistful Seminole Wind could easily have come from his own songbook, and On Broadway has a note of gritty conviction that rings true (''I can play this here guitar…''). But even if Witchita Lineman suits Taylor's earnest voice pretty well, it will always be Glen Campbell's song.
Perhaps wisely, the version of Suzanne is closer to Leonard Cohen's than Nina Simone's awesome transformation. On Why Baby Why, Taylor seems to be channelling George Jones, which is odd, because Taylor has the finer voice. Similarly, his famously supple, honeyed voice seems to get a bit lost on
soul anthems such as It's Growing, I'm A Road Runner and Knock On Wood, as his phrasing strays a little to close to that of others. Covers is a mixed bag, but works best when it sticks closest to material that Taylor himself might have penned.