Growing up as a North Carolinian, the music of James Taylor almost felt as if it was surgically implanted at birth. It’s just as The Andy Griffith Show seemed to be airing all the time on TV somewhere, even when there were only four channels to select. Of course, “Carolina in My Mind” isn’t the state theme song (nor should it be – it’s about being homesick while away from it, after all). But it’s universally more well known and loved than “The Old North State” (a song that probably most Tar Heels today couldn’t recite without help, to be honest). Even in 2020, more than 50 years after “Carolina in My Mind” and the album from which it spawned, his self-titled debut on Apple (that’s the label, not the streaming service), James Taylor’s influence looms large in the singer-songwriter genre he helped popularize.
Fitting, because Taylor is spending 2020 looking back. He’s sharing his memoir (in audio form on Audible), Break Shot, about his days growing up in North Carolina. Coinciding with that release, is American Standard. While not packed with odes to commodes, as the title may suggest, it is part of that grand tradition of aging rock and pop stars covering pre-rock era songs. These are the songs they grew up hearing, songs that still resonate with their audience while attempting to woo an ever-increasing cynical populace with a bit of the joy of unironic good, clean fun.
To be sure, American Standard is not an album for the cynical. There are background vocal arrangements that recall the cheese of the Starland Vocal Band and radio jingles. In today’s self-aware, meme-obsessed culture, one wouldn’t be blamed for thinking many of these songs were recorded with a Ron Burgundy-style wink and smirk, but it’s all done with a sincerity sorely lacking today. That being said, the line has to be drawn somewhere, and that somewhere is the Guys and Dolls eternally campy warning, “Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat”, which should have been put to bed after Louis Armstrong closed the book on it in his inimitable style in 1958. Even in the milquetoast setting of a James Taylor standards album, this arrangement is so light it threatens to float away with the slightest breeze.
The most maddening thing about James Taylor is that just as soon as you’re about to write him off as too soft for The Lawrence Welk Show, he whips out a version of the Billie Holliday standard, “God Bless the Child” that sounds as if it came from Mud Slide Slim and the Blue Horizon. That voice, warm and inviting — as comfortable as your childhood security blanket — is still there and is still as soothing as it ever was. Before you know it, you’ve sunk back into your easy chair in your turtle neck (or ascot, take your pick) with a warm cup of cider, keeping time with your index finger. At the same time, the fire crackles under the sound of a room filled with the best veteran studio musicians still working: from Steve Gadd and Luis Conte on percussion to Blue Lou Marini and Walt Fowler on horns; John Pizzarelli on guitars and Jimmy Johnson on bass to Nashville cats Jerry Douglas, Viktor Krauss, and Stuart Duncan. It’s all flawlessly performed and comforting in its predictability.
American Standard is ultimately for those who see James Taylor’s name on the cover, read the songs listed on the back, and can immediately hear how they will sound in their head. Throughout most of the album, the sound in their head won’t be wrong. After all, it’s a James Taylor album of American standards for Pete’s sake, and there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s as easy as falling off a log.