The American Songbook is an oasis. It draws artists who devote their lives to drinking from its well of timeless melody and deft lyric. It’s also a place where singer/songwriters who have hit a dry spell stop for a little inspiration or maybe just some tunes to assemble for their next album.
That latter group includes Rod Stewart, who’s released five volumes dedicated to the Great American Songbook. Paul McCartney’s “Kisses On The Bottom” (2012); Bryan Ferry’s “As Time Goes By” (1999) and Cyndi Lauper’s “At Last” (2003) all wet their whistles with the perpetually great songs.
That is not to say that these projects lack merit. Far from it, as James Taylor proves on his new “American Standard” album, out Friday.
Like those who preceded the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer down this path, he has gathered a bouquet of songs, including “My Blue Heaven”, “Almost Like Being In Love” and “Moon River.” Each one nestles comfortably into his aesthetic, with an emphasis on acoustic textures illuminated by little surprises. Soprano sax fills, played by Lou Marini (remember “Blue Lou,” longtime SNL fans?) Adds glisten to “Almost Feeling In Love.” Walt Fowler’s flugelhorn similarly casts a jazzy sheen over “The Nearness Of You,” with subtle percussion laying down a languid tropical groove. And Larry Goldings’ keyboard seems to pop out of nowhere on “Pennies From Heaven,” agreeably but maybe superfluously.
These details help distinguish each track, all of which otherwise share the gentle intimacy that is Taylor’s calling card. Sonically, then, “American Standard” conforms to the expectations that precede each of his releases. In this case, though, when spotlighting compositions already embedded into our national repertoire, the effect is to shift our attention from the song to the artist. This is understandable; Taylor is a uniquely soothing, reassuring performer. This serves him best when doing his own material.
Here, though, there is no essential difference between his approaches to the show-stopping “Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ The Boat” and the cautionary “You’ve Got To Be Carefully Taught.” And on “Ol’ Man River,” it’s perhaps beyond his range to effectively render lyrics about planting “taters” and admonitions that “you get a little drunk and you land in jail.”.
Which leads back to the conundrum of American Songbook projects by folks even as essential as Taylor. Frank Sinatra, Billie Holiday, Tony Bennett and Michael Bublé devote themselves to interpreting the works of Gershwin, Mercer and Mancini, much as classical instrumentalists strive to honor the great composers. In contrast, the spotlight here never strays from Taylor – which, again, is not at all a bad thing.
Once again, he has served his fans faithfully. So if your preference is to hear singers strive for insights into this material, it would be better to put that search on hold and enjoy “American Standard” on a less strenuous level.