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Before This World [CD/DVD Combo][Super Deluxe]
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Before This World
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|Audio CD, June 16, 2015||
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Taylor's first album of original material in 13 years, featuring guest appearances by Sting and Yo-Yo Ma
The Super Deluxe Edition consists of a 40-page hard bound book with 2 CDs and 1 DVD. This beautiful and collectable package includes 5 bonus audio tracks, a DVD of the 35-minute documentary 'There We Were: The Recording of James Taylor's Before This World' (Expanded Edition), handwritten lyric facsimiles, new photos of Taylor taken throughout the recording process; plus a free HD audio download of the full album and MP3s of bonus tracks all housed in a numbered, die-cut slip case.
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To write these new songs, James borrowed a friend's apartment in Newport, Rhode Island, and for one weekend a month over several months in 2013 and 2014 he worked undisturbed and focused on writing, as he hadn't been able to do for over a decade. The results are worth the long wait (well, we would have liked something sooner of course, but now that it's here I think his fans are grateful to receive it!).
He sounds as good as ever, as you would expect from a singer who has continued to tour and give concerts pretty much continuously for the past several decades, and it's still James with his soft clear voice in this selection of ten songs. In fact it almost sounds like the 1970's again. Nine of the songs are brand new James Taylor compositions, and those make up the first nine tracks of the album. The final track, Wild Mountain Thyme. is a folk song written by Francis McPeake that has been widely covered over the years and is very beautifully performed here.
The album was recorded mostly at the Barn, the recording studio near to his home, and in producing this recording he's brought together many of his longstanding musical collaborators including Michael Landau (guitar), Larry Goldings (keyboards), Luis Conte (percussion), Steve Gadd (drums) and Jimmy Johnson (bass). It was produced by Dave O'Donnell, who's also been associated with James for many years.
There are also some special guests together with James for several of the songs:
- track 2, `You and I Again': Yo-Yo Ma on cello
- track 3, `Angels of Fenway': harmony vocals by James's wife Kim and son Henry
- track 8, `Before This World/Jolly Springtime': Yo-Yo Ma on cello, Sting harmony vocals
- track 10, `Wild Mountain Thyme': harmony vocals by James's wife Kim and son Henry
Themes of the songs on this album are also familiar to those of us who are longtime fans of James - `Watchin' Over Me' (recovery, and a personal reflection on James's own years fighting the demons of depression and substance abuse); `You and I Again' (love song); `Stretch of the Highway' (traveling); `Today, Today, Today' (working); `Far Afghanistan' (war).
The album times in at just under 42 minutes, perhaps roughly comparable to a live set if you were hearing James at a concert. He put a great deal of effort into the collection of songs that is included here, and the sequence that they are presented, in order to provide the listening experience exactly the way he wanted it. It was worth the effort, and listening to the album from beginning to end, there is nothing discordant about how the music flows from one song to the other. Each of the songs has a specific meaning, and the overall experience is, well, it sounds just like a James Taylor album should sound! It's great to hear him as good as ever (at age 67!).
This album also includes a nicely produced booklet, which begins with a note from James discussing the music on the album, and includes lyrics for each song, along with photos throughout. It's very well done as well.
COMMENT regarding the various editions of this album:
As can be seen on this Amazon page, this can be purchased as a CD, or as a CD plus DVD, or as a super-deluxe package that includes a book and other neat stuff.
I have the CD plus DVD that I purchased at Target (sorry, Amazon!), and it also has a feature that isn't available with any of the versions offered here, three 'bonus' tracks that are exclusive to Target. (I've seen this before with other music CD's that have exclusive Wal-Mart editions as well, so James is not the first to have a special version of a CD that is offered via one of the big chains here in the U.S.)
For those who might be curious regarding what is included with the Target edition, here are the three additional tracks along with some explanatory information:
- Track 11: Pretty Boy Floyd -- written by Woody Guthrie, recorded in Nashville with Mark Knopfler and Chuck Ainlay in 1999 at the same session that was planned to work on October road and produced the song Sailing to Philadelphia where James accompanied Mark. That song appeared on the album of the same name: Sailing to Philadelphia.
- Track 12: I Can't Help It (If I'm Still in Love with You) -- written by Hank Williams (James says it 'has always been my favorite Hank Williams song'), recorded in 2003 with Danny Kortchmar on electric guitar accompanying James.
- Track 13: Diamond Joe -- traditional, recorded in Nashville at the same session where track 11 above was recorded.
These additional tracks bring the total time of the CD to 54 minutes.
Added note 6/23/15: It looks like the Target edition of this CD is now being offered by a few of the third-party sellers here on Amazon: Before This World (Expanded Deluxe Edition – 3 Bonus Tracks + DVD).
Before This World is an intimate, largely autobiographical album of nine new Taylor songs, plus the classic Scottish folk tune “Wild Mountain Thyme”. Close friends Sting and Yo-Yo Ma guest on the album. So, put on some coffee and take a listen. Here are a few brief thoughts on each song:
Today, Today, Today – was the first single released from the album. Taylor’s friend and collaborator Don Grolnick, a jazz and pop pianist who died in 1996, inadvertently helped inspire the song title years ago during a car trip out of Manhattan. Taylor states “One day, driving out of the city, he held up traffic at the Triborough Bridge toll booth, looking for quarters. Behind him, a cabby rolled down his window and yelled at him, ‘Today, TODAY!’ Grolnick would say that whenever he grew impatient: ‘TODAY!’”
You and I Again – is a beautiful tender piano ballad about his wife Kim that features some wonderful accompanying strings.
Angels of Fenway – is a tribute to his Boston Red Sox and his grandmother who was a big Red Sox fan as well. After 86 years of frustration, the Red Sox finally won the World Series in 2004. Unfortunately, it was against my St. Louis Cardinals, and I was at the clinching game in St. Louis as the Red Sox swept the Cardinals. Features harmony vocals from wife Kim and son Henry. Even though I’m not a Red Sox fan, I’m a baseball fan and I loved this song, which is one of my favorites on the album.
Stretch of the Highway – this song features light horns, some effective backing vocal and has a bluesy feel to it. It is a road song. The song references Chicago, President and GMC. Taylor describes the song as “a theme I keep coming back to, the pull of home and the pull of the highway, a big part of my life, the ‘Dad Loves His Work’ theme, the tug of war between your family and going out to work. It’s a split life in a way, something every touring musician, merchant seaman, soldier, traveling salesman and oil-rig worker experiences.”
Montana – is a beautiful song of contentment as Taylor sings of the slower life of being in his cabin high upon a mountain in Montana.
Who can imagine the scale of the forces
That pushed this old mountain range up in the sky?
Tectonic creation, erosion, mutation;
Somethin' to pleasure God's eye.
Watchin’ Over Me – is an upbeat tune which features a fiddle. JT sings of his thankfulness for those who have watched over him on his path to recovery from depression and addiction. He is grateful for a second chance. He realizes the damage he has done and the debt he owes. He has learned his lesson again and that there is only way one to surrender. Although dealing with difficult subject matter, this is a celebration and one of my favorite of the new songs.
SnowTime – has a tropic feel to it. Taylor describes the song as being about people who are economic exiles to Canada in the midst of a freezing Canadian winter who are trying to re-ignite this flame. A frozen Yankee comes across this and is transformed. Taylor states that ultimately the song is about the power of music. The guitars on the chorus reminded me of his classic “Mexico”.
Before This World/Jolly Springtime – Taylor describes this as a spiritual agnostic song. It features beautiful cello work from Yo-Yo Ma.
Before this world was as we know it now
Before the land and sea were formed at all
Before the stars were made to burn and shine
Little love of mine, darling one
Who can pretend to understand at all
No one can both inside and outside be
Who can suppose he knows the way this goes
Little lamb, never mind
Sadly, he sings that the world is old, will never last and that our share of joy is in this moment past.
Jolly Springtime – contrasting the music and pessimistic lyrics of “Before This World” is this upbeat and happy song, celebrating spring in the merry month of May with effective backing vocals.
Far Afghanistan - Taylor describes this song as an “out-of-my-experience fiction piece,” dealing with a soldier leaving for the war. This is the one song that doesn’t fit with the rest of the album, and is my least favorite of the collection.
Wild Mountain Thyme – a beautiful cover of a classic Scottish folk song. Wife Kim and son Henry contribute harmony vocals.
Although Taylor may not profess to be a Christian, he offers an album full of Christian themes as God and Jesus are mentioned and themes of love of family, thankfulness for those who have helped him, appreciation for creation, etc. resonate from these songs. I can’t tell you how good it is to finally have some excellent new music from JT. Welcome back JT. Can’t wait to hear some of these new songs in concert.