James Taylor's Standards Album Sounds Exactly Like You Imagine It Does

Photo: Norman Seeff / Courtesy of Fantasy Recordings

The father of soft rock is the latest to mine the Great American Songbook for inspiration, but unlike his peers, James Taylor approaches the material with the love, care, and sincerity of a true fan.

American Standard
James Taylor


28 February 2020

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.





The Top 20 Punk Protest Songs for July 4th

As punk music history verifies, American citizenry are not all shiny, happy people. These 20 songs reflect the other side of patriotism -- free speech brandished by the brave and uncouth.


90 Years on 'Olivia' Remains a Classic of Lesbian Literature

It's good that we have our happy LGBTQ stories today, but it's also important to appreciate and understand the daunting depths of feeling that a love repressed can produce. In Dorothy Strachey's case, it produced the masterful Olivia.


Indie Rocker Alpha Cat Presents 'Live at Vox Pop' (album stream)

A raw live set from Brooklyn in the summer of 2005 found Alpha Cat returning to the stage after personal tumult. Sales benefit organizations seeking to end discrimination toward those seeking help with mental health issues.

Love in the Time of Coronavirus

‘The Avengers’ Offer a Lesson for Our Time of COVID-19

Whereas the heroes in Avengers: Endgame stew for five years, our grief has barely taken us to the after-credit sequence. Someone page Captain Marvel, please.


Between the Grooves of Nirvana's 'Nevermind'

Our writers undertake a track-by-track analysis of the most celebrated album of the 1990s: Nirvana's Nevermind. From the surprise hit that brought grunge to the masses, to the hidden cacophonous noise-fest that may not even be on your copy of the record, it's all here.


Deeper Graves Arrives via 'Open Roads' (album stream)

Chrome Waves, ex-Nachtmystium man Jeff Wilson offers up solo debut, Open Roads, featuring dark and remarkable sounds in tune with Sisters of Mercy and Bauhaus.

Featured: Top of Home Page

The 50 Best Albums of 2020 So Far

Even in the coronavirus-shortened record release schedule of 2020, the year has offered a mountainous feast of sublime music. The 50 best albums of 2020 so far are an eclectic and increasingly "woke" bunch.


First Tragedy, Then Farce, Then What?

Riffing off Marx's riff on Hegel on history, art historian and critic Hal Foster contemplates political culture and cultural politics in the age of Donald Trump in What Comes After Farce?


HAIM Create Their Best Album with 'Women in Music Pt. III'

On Women in Music Pt. III, HAIM are done pretending and ready to be themselves. By learning to embrace the power in their weakest points, the group have created their best work to date.


Amnesia Scanner's 'Tearless' Aesthetically Maps the Failing Anthropocene

Amnesia Scanner's Tearless aesthetically maps the failing Anthropocene through its globally connected features and experimental mesh of deconstructed club, reggaeton, and metalcore.


How Lasting Is the Legacy of the Live 8 Charity Concert?

A voyage to the bottom of a T-shirt drawer prompts a look back at a major event in the history of celebrity charity concerts, 2005's Live 8, Philadelphia.


Jessie Ware Embraces Her Club Culture Roots on Rapturous 'What's Your Pleasure?'

British diva Jessie Ware cooks up a glittery collection of hedonistic disco tracks and delivers one of the year's best records with What's Your Pleasure.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.