Sweet Baby James
Released: February 1970
Chart Peak: #3
Weeks Charted: 102
Certified Triple Platinum: 10/13/86
Last August James Taylor was quoted in Rolling Stone thusly: "I hope my next album will be simpler. It has to be, because the music is simple and a big production job just buries all my intentions." Well, this first post-Apple album dovetails nicely with that anticipation, even down to the inclusion of Stephen Foster's "Oh, Susannah," buck-wheat cakes in her mouth and all.
Peter Asher (formerly at Apple with Taylor) produced this album, as well as Taylor's first, and, one can hear, let Taylor have free rein this time. Echoes of the Band, the Byrds, country Dylan and folksified Dion abound, yet somehow Taylor pulls through it all with a very listenable record that is all his own. The gentle, intelligent manipulation of piano, steel guitar, fiddle and a few brass arrangements alone deserve a close listening to by any erstwhile producers.
And it is hard to fault Taylor's lyrics. "Sweet Baby James," with its "cowboys waiting for summer/his pastures to change" and "Fire and Rain" with its "Sweet dreams and fire machines in pieces on the ground" are just a few of the images that Taylor develops. Throughout, his vocal stance is low-key and perfectly matched to the country-styled guitar work. No acute solos or overstressed melodies appear as musicians and vocalist together manage to mandala their way through Taylor's persistent lonely prairie/lovely Heaven visions that, at times, work their way up to the intensity of a haiku or the complexity of a parable.
Taylor only shifts from this stance a couple of times. "Oh Baby, Don't You Loose Your Lip On Me" is less than two minutes long; bluesy yet random, it sounds like studio hijinks used to fill out an album. But the other exception, "Steam Roller," is a different story. Here Taylor is earthy and lowdown with definitely crude electric guitar behind him as he moans "I'm gonna inject your soul with some sweet rock and roll and shoot you full of rhythm and blues." Then a miasmic, brass riff to make sure things stay tough, followed by a particularly timely and potent a couple of verses: "I'm a napalm bomb for you baby/stone guaranteed to blow your mind/and if I can't have your love for my own sweet child/there won't be nothing left behind." A double-entendre tour-de-force pulled off effortlessly.
This is a hard album to argue with; it does a good job of providing that his first effort was no fluke. This one gets off the ground just as nicely, as Taylor seems to have found the ideal musical vehicle to say what he has to say.
- Gary Von Tersch, Rolling Stone, 4/30/70.
James Taylor, the Beatles' discovery, is rapidly emerging as one of the premiere singer/songwriters on the scene today. His easy, low-key delivery is just right for his mellow and melancholy slices of life. Produced sensitively by Peter Asher, Taylor's first album for the label is the finest folk effort of the year and should bring his ever-widening audience to chart proportions. "Country Road" is already a FM favorite. A must for folk/blues buffs.
- Billboard, 1970.
- Robert Christgau, Christgau's Record Guide, 1981.
With perhaps the exception of the beautiful, gently orchestrated hit "Fire and Rain," this album does not necessarily contain the most memorable Taylor tracks. It is, however, the most satisfying overall. What's more it shines through on CD.
The simple integrity of these recordings (and the introspective folksy rock music for that matter) makes up for a lot. Although there is plenty of tape hiss, which obtrusively fades up and down between tracks, there is also real punch and crystal clarity. The brass and hi-hat punctuation in "Steamroller," which one might expect to sound bright and fierce, is eaten up and spat out. Drums are a little "cardboardy" but Taylor's voice and acoustic guitar, Carole King's piano too, image with real precision and surprising dynamics improving greatly on what can today sound a mediocre LP.
How can you resist the work of a man who writes in all seriousness "I am a cement mixer for you baby"?
- David Prakel, Rock 'n' Roll on Compact Disc, 1987.
The heart of James Taylor's appeal is that you can take him two ways. On the one hand, his music, including that warm voice, is soothing; its minor key melodies and restrained playing draw in the listener. On the other hand, his world view, especially on such songs as "Fire And Rain," reflects the pessimism and desperation of the '60s hangover that was the early '70s. Either way, this is impressive stuff. * * * * *
- William Ruhlmann, The All-Music Guide to Rock, 1995.
If you're looking for James Taylor's best single album, you have to go all the way back to Sweet Baby James, which contains a number of songs that became his fans' favorites, including the title track, "Fire and Rain," "Country Road" and "Steamroller Blues" -- Taylor's own personal "Freebird." * * * *
- Daniel Durchholz, Musichound Rock: The Essential Album Guide, 1996.
With its heart-wrenching, confessional style this folk-rock classic not only made JT a household name and practically a patron saint, it set the standard for sensitive 70s singer-songwriters. A great chronicler of his generation with an easy voice that's far older than his age, he brings acoustic ballads like "Fire and Rain" and "Country Roads" into the arms of the R&R crowd -- yeah, it's overplayed, but it's sweet through and through. * * * * *
- Zagat Survey Music Guide - 1,000 Top Albums of All Time, 2003.
James Taylor's second album, Sweet Baby James, put him at the forefront of the singer-songwriter movement. To his fans, his music is like a favorite pair of jeans: warm, familiar, and comfortable. Of course, most people don't know exactly where or how their jeans were made, and it is quite likely that many people who sit on blankets at ampitheaters summer after summer, listening to Taylor croon "Fire and Rain," the album's most famous track, are probably unaware that the song's genesis came in a mental institution.
While in later years, Taylor became known (perhaps unfairly) as the face of polished soft-rock, Taylor's early years weren't so clean-cut. In the late sixties, he battled depression and drug addiction, and checked into clinics twice to deal with these problems. "Fire and Rain" was, in part, about the suicide of a friend he met at one of these clinics. The subtlety in the song wasn't simply to court commercial radio play, it was to deal with the sensitive topic in an appropriate way. Still, despite its maudlin subject matter, it became one of Taylor's biggest hits. The song would go on to become a sort of anthem to those coping with loss.
Of course, Sweet Baby James was far from just being a funeral for a friend. The title track was written about his nephew and namesake, although fans would later use the title to refer to James. The album also displays Taylor's sharp sense of wit in the track "Steamroller." Never before and never again in song would Taylor refer to himself as "a napalm bomb -- guaranteed to blow your mind." Safe to say that not even Taylor's most ardent fan ever considered him "a churning urn of burning funk." With tongue firmly planted in cheek, Taylor claimed these titles for himself. And with more than just a wink, this blues tribute/parody showed a sense of humor not often associated with Taylor.
However, it is songs like "Fire and Rain" that Taylor is most often associated with, songs that greet you like an old friend, and console you when you need it. And that might be Taylor's appeal: He may not be the idolized rock-star type, but he is the guy who can empathize with you when you're down and out because he's been there.
Sweet Baby James was voted the 77th greatest album of all time in a VH1 poll of over 700 musicians, songwriters, disc jockeys, radio programmers, and critics in 2003.
- Brian Ives, VH1's 100 Greatest Albums, 2003.
Taylor's second album landed him on the cover of Time magazine and secured his place as the patriarch of the 1970s singer-songwriter scene. But he went through a private hell on his way to success; the album's Top Five hit "Fire and Rain" was inspired by Taylor's stay in a psychiatric institution in the mid-1960s (he had committed himself) and the suicide of a fellow patient. Taylor set a new standard for confession in pop lyrics on "Fire and Rain." But it is the quiet strength in his voice, framed by the skeletal grace of Peter Asher's production, that still makes this album a model of folk-pop healing music.
Sweet Baby James was chosen as the 103rd greatest album of all time by the editors of Rolling Stone magazine in Dec. 2003.
- Rolling Stone, 12/11/03.
Featuring the US Top Three hit "Fire And Rain" -- apparently as much about the suicide of a fellow patient during Taylor's time in a hospital for the mentally ill as the love song it is often taken for -- Sweet Baby James served to confirm the singer/songwriter's skills at weaving bittersweet country rock songs around love, friendship, loss and life. His second album was full of the lilting introspection that had marked his eponymous debut set, recorded a year earlier for The Beatles' Apple label, with beautifully delivered pared back love songs, notably "Blossom," while there is country aplenty on the title track and "Anywhere Like Heaven," and even a jazzed-up blues tune in "Steamroller," where Taylor is a "napalm bomb/guaranteed to blow your mind." With the Vietnam War still on-going and the hopes of the Sixties generation a fading memory, the album tapped into the post-hippy attitides then prevailing.
As of 2004, Sweet Baby James was the #93 best-selling album of the 70s.
- Hamish Champ, The 100 Best-Selling Albums of the 70s, 2004.
On Sweet Baby James, pastoral American beauty is presented within the simple, unaffected frame of James Taylor's songwriting. But when he surveys the inner landscape a different horizon is revealed -- one of solitude lit by sparse rays of hope.
Rolling Stone wrote that Taylor's "persistent lonely prairie/lovely Heaven visions...work their way up to the intensity of a haiku or the complexity of a parable." The title track is a lullaby of canyons and cowboy blues that draws on country-folk traditions for its plaintive power. Taylor has an honest, low-key vocal delivery that suits his lyrical content and guitar playing perfectly.
His blues efforts, including the gleefully libidinous "Steamroller," are entertaining and ripe with wry humor, though Taylor lacks the raw edge to work well in that idiom. What he does have is a fine grasp of human frailties and a sense of the power of redemption -- witness the great "Fire And Rain." Departure haunts the song -- departure from people, places, and life itself. An adieu to a dead friend, its cold-light-of-day clarity is a masterpiece of understated regret.
"Blossom" is another standout track, and plays like a folk-inflected "Here Comes The Sun." More emphatically upbeat is the closing track, "Suite for 20G," which begins in familiar Taylor territory, with sunlit lyricism and a neat descending guitar refrain. Halfway through, however, it shifts gear and slides into a high-rolling R&B blow-out, complete with majestic horn section.
Sweet Baby James went on to achieve triple platinum sales, and triumphantly established Taylor as a musical force in the new decade.
- Jamie Dickson, 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die, 2005.
If you're a guy, you need this on the shelf as a symbol of your sensitivity. Sweet Baby James sends prospective girlfriends the tacit signal that you can kick back and be mellow. If you're a girl, you need this because for several generations now, your sisters have turned to James Taylor, in winter, spring, summer, or fall, whenever they needed a friend. This is Taylor's breakthrough, and one of the first singer-songwriter records to make a virtue of sensitive-guy introspection. After it, Taylor, whose music incorporates bits of country and gospel, became a big star and, later, a chardonnay accompaniment for warm summer nights.
As his career progressed, Taylor buffed the edges of his confessional approach until it became glossy L.A. soft-rock. This album's desultory and downcast odes, among them the title track and "Country Road," argue that the edges were crucial to his art. The best songs here start at a shattered emotional pitch; they follow sad and somewhat lost characters as they try to pick up the pieces. "Fire and Rain," which was allegedly inspired by a suicide in a mental institution where Taylor had been a patient, is among several songs that express a basic human desire to help. Such compassion can come off as corny; yet Taylor, with his rumpled aw-shucks delivery, conveys tender and genuine concern. It's this plainspoken Everyguy tone that brings people back to Sweet Baby James: Lots of singer-songwriters tell of dire circumstances and the hope that's nearly lost. Few manage to make the troubles fade as Taylor does, in a voice so reassuring and warm it can give a lifelong pessimist faith in the future.
- Tom Moon, 1,000 Recordings To Hear Before You Die, 2008.
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