James Taylor – The Essential (review)

James Taylor – The Essential (Sony/Legacy) review

Two discs chronicle James Taylor’s entire career

Throughout James Taylor’s long career, there’s never been a collection that really did him justice – until now.  The Essential James Taylor marks the first-ever, two-disc collection that spans the entire career of one of the most-beloved singer/songwriters of all-time.  Mastered by the great Vic Anesini, these classic tracks have never sounded better.

The collection opens with the warm, campfire guitar of “Sweet Baby James,” where the pedal steel shines like never before, segueing into “Fire and Rain,” in which the violin is heard more prominently.  You may be surprised at how good these versions sound.  When Taylor duets with Joni Mitchell on the gentle “Long Ago and Far Away, “ the duo feel like they’re in your living room.  His then-wife Carly Simon can definitely be heard on Taylor’s excellent Marvin Gaye cover “How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You),” while David Crosby & Graham Nash sparkle doing backup on “Mexico.”  The searing live version of “Steamroller” (originally written for Elvis Presley) is here in an edited form (taking out the f-word near the end).

“Something in the Way She Moves” and “Carolina in My Mind” are not the original Apple versions, but the improved, re-recordings off the original Warner Brothers’ Greatest Hits.  “Your Smiling Face” is perhaps Taylor’s best rocker, propelled by a funky beat and excellent fretwork by the ever-present Danny Kortchmar.

Overshadowed by his gifts as a songwriter is Taylor’s ability to breathe new life into an old classic – he takes the goofy Jimmy Jones’ nugget “Handy Man” and transforms it into a gorgeous, back porch acoustic ballad, while he revamps Buddy Holly’s “Everyday” with keyboards and soulful backing vocals.

Taylor was always able to surround himself with talented people.  He and J.D. Souther blend seamlessly for “Her Town Too” – never has there been a song so poignantly written about divorce.  Stevie Wonder adds his signature harmonica to “Little More Time With You.”  A welcome surprise is the harmony-laden “Only One,” which has never been included on a Taylor compilation until now.

While his hits became less frequent, Taylor still released excellent material – the yearning “Copperline” from 1991 showed that he hadn’t lost the ability to spin a good tale, while “Caroline I See You” is just one example of his fine, latter-day material on October Road.  Several older tracks are included in recent live versions – “Country Road” is from 1993, while “You Can Close Your Eyes” dates from 2007.  Yet, even the concert recordings still embody the spirit of these classic songs, never straying too far from the original versions.

Because Taylor recorded for several different record labels over the years, tracking down all of his hits has been difficult.  The Essential finally grabs all of his classic tunes in one, great collection.  If you like James Taylor, this is the collection for you.   —Tony Peters