New Moon Shine

James Taylor

Columbia Records, 1991

REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg


For blinded-by-dollars, behind-the-times, guiltily sentimental and generally just plain dopey behavior, it's hard to match the folks who vote on the Grammy Awards. I mean, are we all clear on the fact that the Grammy they gave Bob Dylan this year, 35 years into his amazing career, was his FIRST? I've heard of lost weekends, but that's gotta be a new record. And remember a couple of years ago when they gave Time magazine cover boys U2 the award for "Best Alternative Album"? Even Bono acted stunned. He knows his place in the music scene, and that ain't it.

No, these Grammy voters seem to have developed a sense of absurdity that would give even Monty Python pause. For further evidence, I give you this year's winner for Best Pop Album, James Taylor's very enjoyable Hourglass. An absurd choice not just because Taylor thought so little of his chances that he didn't even bother attending, or because it hit the charts twenty-five years after unrecognized platinum albums like Sweet Baby James and Gorilla, but because it isn't even his best album of the '90s.

That title belongs to1991's New Moon Shine.

A return to form of sorts after three solid but unspectacular outings during the '80s, this album brings together unusually strong representatives from each of Taylor's principal musical approaches: melancholy introspection, grooving funk, meaning-laden story-songs and soulful harmonizing.

To the casual listener who knows Taylor only from "Fire And Rain" and "You've Got A Friend," elements of the above description may sound a little foreign. But Taylor has always dug soul and R&B music, and here he cuts loose with his affection for these genres a little more than he did in his early days. Part of the impetus seems to have come from a mini-reunion with old bandmate and fellow blue-eyed soul lover Danny Kortchmar, now a successful producer (Don Henley, Billy Joel). The man once known as "Kootch" co-wrote the swinging, horn-driven "Got to Stop Thinkin' 'Bout That," and plays on and co-produces both it and the smartly arranged and keenly observed "The Frozen Man."my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

Taylor touches on social/political concerns as well, movingly on "Shed a Little Light," a soaring, gospel-tinged anthem to Martin Luther King, Jr., and hilariously on the Reagan/Bush deconstruction rap "Slap Leather." One of the keys to Taylor's talent as a songwriter is the way his essential shyness sometimes evaporates in his lyrics, catching you by surprise with raw emotions that can range from compassion to scorn to fulfillment to deep, deep blues.

He exploits the latter maybe a little too eagerly on the one low point on the album, "Down In The Hole." A pop dirge of sorts, the song -- inexplicably placed second on the album -- takes the metaphor of depression driving you underground to ridiculous, even tedious lengths. My advice is just to hit skip and keep moving past this anomaly -- there's great stuff ahead.

From the point of view of a long-time fan who has been known to carry on in the JT newsgroup from time to time, maybe the most overlooked song on the album is "Like Everyone She Knows." Leading off with some of the prettiest acoustic playing Taylor has ever put on record (and that's saying something...), the song slowly unfolds around a thirtysomething woman battling through a deer-in-the-headlights emotional paralysis at a crossroads in her life. Its message about the healing powers of solitude and patience ("Tend your own fire / Lay low and be strong") is sealed by an achingly beautiful Branford Marsalis sax solo.

There's a lot more here... an evocatively-told tale of young love ("Copperline")... an energetic piece of blue-eyed funk about waking up at middle age with suddenly clear eyes ("One More Go Round")... and a romp through Sam Cooke's classic "Everybody Loves To Cha Cha Cha"... Taylor's rich, rangy voice, seemingly stronger and stronger with age, matches tones beautifully with whatever genre he's drawing from.

But some things never change. Even on this, perhaps Taylor's happiest album, there's a hint of tragedy.

It comes nears the end in the clearly autobiographical "Oh Brother," in which the narrator tries to wish, coax, admonish and otherwise will a sibling through a seemingly impossible battle with addiction. In one of the most moving moments on Hourglass (in "Enough to Be On Your Way"), Taylor eulogizes his older brother Alex, who died in 1996 after a lifelong battle with alcohol and drugs. That outcome is foretold here. "You forgot to remember to never die young" he sings to his brother, echoing the title song of his 1987 album, at the time seemingly directed at the death by overdose of his friend John Belushi. At Belushi's funeral, Taylor sang "That Lonesome Road," a 1981 song whose key image he repeats a decade later in "Oh Brother" -- "And that moon will be / Shining in the trees." What has developed out of these three songs and the real-life events surrounding them is a remarkably moving song cycle about self-destruction and loss.

In that sense, New Moon Shine has it all: joy and sadness, folk and funk, dense grooves and soaring vocals. The one thing it doesn't have is a Grammy. To which I can only respond, so the hell what.

Rating: A-

User Rating: Not Yet Rated



© 1998 Jason Warburg and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of Columbia Records, and is used for informational purposes only.