Music for the aged
Review by Gary C.W. Chun
"The Best of James Taylor"
"Meet Me in Margaritaville: The Ultimate Collection"
This one's for all us aging baby boomers. Both James Taylor and Jimmy Buffett are enormously successful who arguably hit their creative stride in the '70s and now maintain solid, if sometimes undistinguished careers by settling in as dependable and entertaining concert draws.
They're both in their mid-50s, time enough to have their formidable song repertoires compiled on best-selling albums through the years. But while Buffett has already been duly served with the career-spanning, multi-disc box treatment -- namely 1992's "Boats, Beaches, Bars & Ballads" -- Taylor surprisingly has not been given his due.
His most popular songs, first recorded while with Warner Bros., then with his current label Columbia, have already been gathered on two separate greatest-hits compilations. But there's never been one that brought together songs from throughout his career.
Until now. "The Best of James Taylor" from his earlier label makes a good replacement for the 1976 "Greatest Hits" album released by Warner. While it's understandable that the label would favor the hits Taylor had while under contract, it does include four of his Columbia songs: the well-crafted soul and funk of "Handy Man" and "Your Smiling Face," his big-city-romance cover of "Up on the Roof" (with its expansive Arif Mardin string arrangement) and the Brazilian-influenced "Only a Dream in Rio," reprised from Columbia's "Greatest Hits, Vol. 2" of 2000.
There's even a previously unreleased song, "Bittersweet," written by Taylor's accompanying guitarist John Sheldon. It's solid, but not "the best" of what has come before.
It would have been better to sacrifice it and "Rio" in favor of stronger material such as "Secret o' Life," "Bartender's Blues" and "Her Town Too," but one can't argue with the obvious inclusion of "Fire and Rain," Taylor's autobiographical breakthrough song that still resonates as one of the greatest singer-songwriter hits of the '70s. The same can be said for his intimate version of Carole King's "You've Got a Friend," the warmly optimistic "Shower the People" and a spirited live version of "Steamroller," which also is reprised from the '76 greatest hits album.
That year's re-recorded version of "Carolina in My Mind" also is included. And the compilation boasts a couple of rarities -- "Something in the Way She Moves" from his 1969 debut on the Beatles' Apple Records label and a single version of "Country Road" that differs in its vocal arrangement and more aggressive rhythm. There also are two songs that, while not hits, are among Taylor's best -- "Long Ago and Far Away" and "Golden Moments."
I'VE ALWAYS liked Taylor, but when it comes to Buffett, I'm no Parrothead. But this new two-CD collection does give me a newfound appreciation for the bulk of this former journalist's work.
Buffet has carved out a very nice living for himself as a best-selling author, restaurateur and musician who's always spinning tales from his Key West, Fla. home for his "armchair pirate" fans.
This new "ultimate collection" makes for a crash course on Buffett's music -- overall, always pleasant, humorous and occasionally serious enough so that it doesn't always feel like Mardi Gras and Spring Break rolled into one.
The second of the two CDs is the better. The lead-off song, "School Boy Heart," from 1996's "Banana Wind" album even sounds like Taylor -- not surprising since it was produced by Taylor's longtime drummer Russ Kunkel.
The disc also is filled with the bulk of new songs Buffett included specifically for this collection. There are takes on a couple of classics, Fred Neil's "Everybody's Talkin' " (given a bossa nova lilt) and Brian Wilson's "Sail On Sailor," a newly buffed-up "Volcano," "Saxophones" finally done right with a full horn section and fine live versions of "Desperation Samba (Halloween in Tijuana)" and an acoustic take on "A Pirate Looks at Forty."
But it's his new (and now wistful) takes on "Son of a Son of a Sailor" and "The Captain and the Kid," a loving tribute to his dad, that shows Buffett gathering musical strength as he matures.
The bulk of the material is included on Buffett's earlier box set. But for us non-Parrotheads, the smaller-by-half "Meet Me in Margaritaville" is enough, thanks.
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