Even if you don’t know Chip Taylor‘s name, you know his songs, especially FM staples like “Wild Thing” or “Angel of the Morning”. Those two standards, plus a host of other Taylor-penned hits by other artists, underscore the fact that Taylor doesn’t really have anything to prove. Taylor’s driving ambition, though, seems to be establishing himself as a performer of his own songs (a quest which started in the early ‘70s, went on hiatus in the ‘80s and most of the ‘90s when he left music for a career as a professional gambler, and then resurrected itself in 1996 with Hit Man.
The Trouble with Humans should do a lot to get Taylor where he wants to be, further solidifying him as a songwriter and performer of note, even if newcomer Carrie Rodriguez accounts for half of the album’s successful equation. Apparently, Taylor ran across the young fiddler/singer at a South by Southwest conference a few years back, and, liking the sound of her voice, enlisted her for 2002’s Leave This Town. That record gently introduced Rodriguez to the music world, and Taylor was definitely the focal point. The Trouble with Humans, though, showcases a duo who are increasingly becoming equals.
It’s a good thing, too. Rodgriguez and Taylor have voices and singing styles that fit each other like gloves. Rodriguez’ deep twang rests just this side of Iris DeMent, while, at his most relaxed, Taylor sounds like fellow Texas songwriter Willie Nelson. They kick things off by trading stanzas in “Don’t Speak in English” (establishing a theme that runs throughout the album of examining the way we humans communicate—usually pretty badly—with each other). The song also establishes their easy-going, unhurried style, as they sing over a gentle, loping rhythm and the occasional harmonica flourish. Even “All the Rain”, which kicks up its heels like a Saturday night barn dance, ultimately feels like the characters have no particular place to be once the band packs up.
Throughout, Taylor and Rodriguez offer up lyrics that pinpoint just how complicated relationships can get—at any stage. On “Curves and Things”, Taylor sings, “How’s this for you baby / Woke up last night in a cold cold sweat / Dreamt we were doin’ what we ain’t done yet / And it’s stuff that I regret”. In “Confessions”, Rodriguez’s narrator sums up the two men in her life: “There’s one who puts this roof o’er my head / Then travels off to sea / And there one who gives me fever / He’ll be the death of me”. On “I Need a Wall”, a plea for support comes in the form of “Don’t tempt me—just help me ... build a wall”. On the title track, it boils down to a simple, gentle “Don’t say nothin’”.
The Trouble with Humans is a remarkably comfortable album, especially given the often weighty topics that it covers. Taylor and Rodriguez know how to weave their voices, and the arrangements are all comfortable, country-tinged, and unobtrusive. Taylor is naturally the dominant songwriter (Rodriguez snags a co-writing credit on three tracks, another sign—in addition to her increased vocal duties—that Taylor’s mentoring her along), but you really get the sense that Rodriguez exerts a significant influence on how he constructs his songs. Only two albums in, the pair seems to be growing into a genuine—and satisfying—partnership.