Sunday, May 11, 2014

Kat's Korner: Livingston Taylor brings the songs to life

Kat:  In 1968, Laura Nyro released Eli & The Thirteenth Confession, a classic in the singer-songwriter genre.  No one wrote like her then and no one has really since.  A fan of the girl groups and soul music with an affinity for Broadway and Rogers & Hart, Laura's lyrics were as expansive as her chords and that meant that, just as she might bend a note in a chord to get a different sound, she might create a word in her lyrics when no existing one would do.

There's so much richness in her work, that you'd think the late composer's songs would be all over the place. Kanye West sampled Laura's "Save The Country" for his 2007 "The Glory."  And give him credit for that and for crediting Laura.  Joe Raposo really ripped it off for "Can You Tell Me How To Get To Sesame Street" and   Laura got no credit at all.

On his new album Blue Sky, singer-songwriter Livingston Taylor covers Laura's "Sweet Blindness."

Let's go down by the grapevine
Drink my daddy's wine, good morning
Down by the grapevine
Drink my daddy's wine, good morning
Oh sweet blindness, 
A little magic
A little kindness, 
Oh sweet blindess
All over me 
Four leaves on a clover
I'm just a bit of a shade hungover
Come on baby do a slow float
You're a good lookin riverboat
And ain't that sweet-eyed blindness good to me 

He does the song in a way I wouldn't expect and I'm not sure another voice could pull it off.  But what's already a classic of American song becomes a definitive Livingston Taylor song in the process.

Taylor is part of the American music scene by way of being a member of the Taylor family which includes his sister (the underrated) Kate and his brothers Alex, Hugh and James.  He's also a friend of Carly Simon's from before she was involved in with James and he's part of the 20th century music scene via the work he and Carly did together (on his version of "Pretty Woman," "Loving Be My New Horizon" and "Best of Friends," for example).

He's had several moments of his brilliance over the years but the new album Blue Sky is really the standard bearer, the benchmark for his career.

Even people who don't like singer-songwriter Stephen Bishop can usually appreciate Bishop's "On and On." Livingston pipes a different flavor into the song, turning the notes in the verse into baseball bursts tossed as though in a game of catch only to ride the wave of the chorus.  As with his reworking of Laura's "Sweet Blindness," the reworking takes you by surprise and let's you hear the song in a new and fresh way.

He's recorded Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann before ("On Broadway") and did so very well but this go round he grabs "Here You Come Again."  He tosses up into a few high notes that are interesting and I like the syncopation he adds to "you're messing with my mind" but when he uses a growl on "here you come again," it's a move and treatment that I wish he'd applied to the whole song.

That's about all the negative criticism I have.

Track after track amazes.

For example, his take on Lennon & McCartney's "Paperback Writer" brings the lyrics home.  The story comes through.  This is a song I sing along with and listen to millions of times, over an over, in the last decades.  But Livingston makes the words and the story come alive in a way they haven't for me in years.

His own "Boatman" is reborn as well.  Listening to the last two tracks ("Sleepy Is Good" and "I Have Dreamed"), I thought of how Carly joining in could have enhanced them and then wondered why he doesn't do a duet album?

More than any of his brothers, Livingston has a romantic quality to his voice that's perfect for duets.  And I thought about how, if he did a duet album, some women would be especially suited for him.  "Smile" by Melanie is a wonderful song that you could hear them doing and his romanticism and Melanie's mysticism would make for something memorable.

He's created an incredibly memorable album with Blue Sky.  You can really tell your friends, "If you never listen to any other Livingston Taylor album, make sure you listen to this one."  It really is that good.  Taylor's insisted this album is part of a "trinity" that also includes 2005's There You Are Again and 2009's Last Alaska Moon.  Maybe so.  But he's reached a higher level on this one and would be real shame to wait five or six years to record a follow up album -- a shame for him and a shame for music.