James Taylor “American Standard” (Fantasy)
James Taylor’s intentions with his newest album, “American Standard,” are noble: He’s putting the spotlight on early 20th-century American music, paying tribute to pieces that inspired him when he was first falling in love with the idea of songcraft. It winds up being a misguided celebration, though — in large part because so much of the material he covers, whether they’re set pieces from beloved Broadway musicals or jazz standards, looms large in the American musical memory. Contrasting the canonical versions with Taylor’s gentle reworks, which put the spotlight on strummed guitars and his warmly precise voice, is inevitable — and the newer takes are, unfortunately, often lacking.
Taylor’s voice serves certain songs on “American Standard” well. “Almost Like Being in Love,” from the Lerner and Loewe musical “Brigadoon,” is shot through with sunlight, its minimalist arrangement providing a bright backdrop for Taylor’s tenderly delighted vocal. The Rodgers and Hart love song “My Heart Stood Still” is given a luminous rework, its light percussion and swooning violin providing a lovely underscoring of Taylor’s professions of being struck down by love. And “As Easy as Rolling Off a Log” — which a young Taylor discovered while watching a “Merrie Melodies” cartoon — is loose and playful, its clarinet solo and whistled outro making it even more whimsical.
Yet for much of the time Taylor’s approach, which serves his storytelling-forward, thoughtful compositions well, clashes with what’s happening within the music itself; his swing, so crucial to jazzier tracks like “Teach Me Tonight,” is lacking, and the affable attitude that gives his love songs so much heart undermines his versions of feistier songs like “Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat,” the revival-tent anthem from the classic musical “Guys and Dolls.” In the show’s context, it’s an absolute barnburner with a winking edge, Nicely-Nicely Johnson’s tall tale about a prophetic dream delivered with such absolute gusto you’d think the gambler had converted himself by the song’s frenzied conclusion. Taylor’s version twinkles when it should blaze; its callback to the Hues Corporation’s disco confection “Rock the Boat” only makes it sit more uncomfortably. And the less said about Taylor’s “Old Man River,” the better.
In an interview with The Guardian, Taylor said that the songs on “American Standard” — the album is out on Friday — came from a period that was “the pinnacle of American popular song. . . . It was sheet music, anyone would sing it, so the songs had to stand on their own.” He’s not wrong. But the ghosts of more well-known recordings hover over “American Standard,” and they’re enough of a distraction to make one think that a better tribute to these compositions might have been a Taylor-curated playlist of the versions that originally captured his imagination all those years ago.
James Taylor & His All-Star Band play Fenway Park on June 21.
Maura Johnston can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.