Poor James Taylor. Singer-songwriters are a dime a dozen it seems, and a good number of them are talented and interesting. Amidst all of these voices, it's easy to forget how big-hearted James Taylor's music is -- how astral and yet grounded too. His first album came out in the '60s (on Apple Records no less), and now in the new millennium his Live at the Beacon Theatre is one of the best concert DVDs you can buy. That James Taylor has survived for more than 30 years is an accomplishment, but his fans -- which I am -- know how much fine music he's made along the way.
So it was with a loud "all right" that I heard about the remasters of Taylor's first five albums on Columbia, which is still his label (well, sort of -- Sony now owns Columbia). These digital remasters were crafted from the master tapes by the original producers and engineers. Original artwork and liner notes, including lyrics, are also here, and these are a big deal because by and large the first-generation CDs included nothing in the way of supporting materials.
Comparing these CDs in terms of sound to the generally poor-sounding original versions results in home runs for the remasters; every sonic parameter is made better. Dad Loves His Work and Flag, for example, are no longer overly gray-sounding and obscured. The remasters are more resolved -- just A/B "Summer's Here" from Dad Loves His Work for definitive proof -- and spacious. The greater sonic challenge comes from now-defunct Mobile Fidelity, which remastered Dad in 1998. I reviewed that disc, and the new remaster is very close to it in terms of sound. The MoFi version is a bit more relaxed than the Columbia version, more classically musical without losing detail. But the newer disc won't cost you the premium MoFi price, which has only increased now that all MoFi discs are out of print.
Clearly Dad Loves His Work, Flag and JT are musically head and shoulders above That's Why I'm Here and Never Die Young, but these other collections have their individual moments. The better three discs are also the oldest of the group, but Taylor's latest album, Hourglass, is very fine, proving that he still has music to make. The studio collection that precedes Hourglass, New Moon Shine, is among Taylor's best work and should be considered along with JT, Dad Loves His Work, Flag and Greatest Hits (on Warner Bros.) as definitely worth owning.
If you're wondering, James Taylor's next collection is due out in the fall of this year, so you won't have to wait for long for a taste of something truly new. But for Taylor junkies like me, these five discs are what weve been waiting and hoping for -- the restoration of music we can listen to again and again.
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