James Taylor’s new album American Standard has an overwhelmingly familiar feel to it, which I think is both to its benefit and to its detriment. While it delivers on the expectations alluded to in the title (the album contains American musical standards including well-known showtunes and popular songs such as “Sit Down, You’re Rocking the Boat” from Guys and Dolls and “Moon River” from Breakfast at Tiffany’s ), it does not really introduce any new material since all the songs featured are covers.
As noted above, Taylor’s new album consists exclusively of covers of well-known American songs. Even though the songs he chose are essentially all beloved tunes, this was a bit disappointing to me, given that Taylor is known as both a singer and as a songwriter. At the least, I had hoped for some original songs, even if they were not written by Taylor himself.
That said, the album still has a lot to offer, and I found it quite enjoyable to listen to. The word that keeps coming to mind in relation to the collection of songs is comfortable. Not only is Taylor’s warm, mellow voice comforting to listen to, but Taylor sticks to a relatively comfortable vocal range and his signature vocal style. For instance, Taylor’s rendition of “God Bless the Child” is undeniably in his own musical mold, and consequently quite different than Billie Holiday’s original version (which has made its own mark as an American standard). I did not, however, find myself constantly comparing the two when listening to Taylor’s version because the way he has made the song is own is rather classic and singular in its own way. There is not anything wild or revolutionary on this album, but that is clearly the point. The instrumental accompaniment is simple and never overpowering, consisting mainly of guitar with some light percussion. It is easy to imagine that Taylor is singing straight to the listener, and each song seems like a story that Taylor is telling personally.
Overall, American Standard blazes no new trails in American music, but it does continue the legacy of one this country’s most popular recording artists. (Taylor has won multiple GRAMMYs, was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2001, and has sold over 100 million records). Especially given the turbulence of the current world, perhaps Taylor’s artistic choice to play off of familiarity was what was needed at this moment.