Sunday, August 30, 2015

Danny O'Keefe and James Taylor Prove 'You Just Have To Be Ready'

By Peter Rodman

There’s a certain comfort in knowing an artist’s sensibilities and tastes remain intact, even after 5 or 6 decades. The downside might be that you can hear echoes of their past work, in any of their new work.
The upside is exactly the same.

Some critics might mistake predictability for rust, but that’s like saying a movie sequel should throw out all that came before it. (Or even that Gramps should never have processed the wisdom he accumulated, along the way.)
Two new albums put the kibosh on that notion, to varying degrees and in entirely different ways.
I thought you’d like to know...but first, if you will…a bit of history:

It's my belief that a reflexive fear of irrelevance  knee-jerked the community of ‘rock critics’ into defending 'hip-hop' as the most wonderful thing since Elvis.
Well, it ain’t.  (But that discussion’s for another day.)

I only bring it up here, because those same critics (Rolling Stone, for example) would rather be caught dead than to unabashedly praise a new James Taylor or Danny O’Keefe album.
And that is precisely what I am here to do...with a few minor caveats.
I didn't wish to engage in the usual “He’s a national treasure” banter here, but it's unavoidable. 

We kinda know that, about both of ‘em.

The questions for me, before hearing either of these new projects, were:

  • How will an entirely new set of original songs fare, as each artist enters his sunset years? 
  • Can 60 and 70-somethings really create new work as relevant as the body of classic stuff that put them on the map, nearly a half century ago?
  • Are they doomed to merely re-recite the same set of music each and every night on the road, for the rest of their years on this planet?
The answers are, "Nicely, yes, and...yes."

When he was still in his twenties, Taylor wrote of this very phenomenon:

“See me singin' about ‘Fire and Rain?’
Let me just say it again:
I’ve seen fives, and I’ve seen tens!
It was strong hit
from the Money Machine
I was sittin' on top…
On top of the goddamn world…”

O'Keefe, too, had profound doubts about what it all meant, back in the ’70s: 

“It ain’t for the money, and it’s only for awhile
You stalk about the rooms; you roll away the miles
Gamblers in the neon, clinging to guitars;
‘You’re right about the moon, you’re wrong about the stars’
And when you stop, to let ‘em know you got it down…
It’s just another town, along the road.”

With breathtaking self-awareness, these young men confided in their millions of fans--at the peak of their fame and fortune--about all the self-doubt success had brought them.
Even more impressive was the cool absence of self-pity, in both Taylor's "Money Machine" and O'Keefe's "The Road."  Each possessed a keen eye for taking that emotional ‘selfie’-- without any of the self-congratulatory posturing one might expect today.

All of which neatly brings us to "now."

How, I wondered, would these laser-like songwriting pens fare--especially after such lengthy absences from the studio, and (quite frankly) at such an advanced age?  Had time dulled their swords? 
The answer to that one, delightfully, is “No.”
Time has only brought each writer more wisdom--which is a writer’s personal knife sharpener.

Danny O’Keefe has just made the best album of his entire career.
In fact, it’s got so many treasures, so much lyrical depth, and so many different personalities underneath the singer’s voice and the players' colorings,  I still haven’t quite wrapped my mind around all of it.
This is how albums should be! 
Light Leaves the West isn't something you hear once and say, “Okay…got it.” It's a work of deceptive beauty that may not even grab you, on first listen--but return visits are as rewarding as a new glance at a favorite painting.  You'll go back to the museum wondering how much you missed the first time, confident there’s more to discover.
There is.
This album dips into a rich palette of musical colors.
O’Keefe began exploring most of its musical themes as a man in his twenties--jazzy minor sevenths, suspended riffs, knowing pauses before key punchlines--and longtime fans will be happy to hear this fully ripened version of his unique perspective on life...which amounts to a whimsical,  sometimes wistful shrug.
Danny O'Keefe
  The writer in him sees what we all see, and accepts it.  It's his from-the-heart voice that provides the emotion.   

O’Keefe's fans will certainly recognize his arranging skills: At various times the musical ‘stops’ echo “The Road,” or his signature song, “Goodtime Charlie’s Got the Blues,” or even the more ethereal “Magdalena”-- but those were indeed Breezy Stories, compared to the deep thoughts O’Keefe has crafted here.

Light begins propitiously with "You Don't Have to Be Right (You Have to Be Ready)."   The sprightly pop opening quickly draws you in with major chords, and just as quickly calms you down with jazzy colorings, like a Seattle sunset whose fuzzy beauty takes a few minutes to emerge.

Danny begins to sing:
"Even the dreamers don't dream any dreams, any more.
Luxury items; now that's hard to afford..."
Almost immediately, you know you're listening to a poetic voice like no other.  Old timers may actually feel as though they've been awakened-- Rumpelstiltskin-style--by some long-forgotten seer, making his long-awaited 'second coming.'
"They tell ya it's all done with wires; I don't think it's true
It's all done with mirrors, just between me and you..."

O'Keefe is quite obviously right and ready.
That opener makes a musical nod to 1972's "The Road," as O'Keefe sets up the payoff (title) line with a kind of 'wait for it...okay, here it comes' set-up...and I find in that more whimsy than redundance.
What's happening here is essentially a re-awakening. Danny O'Keefe has reached a level of comfort with his perplexed nature,  and that acceptance seems to have pulled the shades up, and allowed more light in the writer's room. 
The light that's left "the west" is shining in on his writer's heart, and it shows throughout this gem. Nowhere does he foresake his familiar styles; mostly, he just updates them.
(Fans of the ethereal "Magdalena" will find "Ultramarine" similar in feel but even more rewarding, and so on.)  
I might have liked his voice to be miked a bit closer, as the words are sometimes hard to hear--and always well worth hearing.  In fact, the worst thing I can say about this album is that with a baker's dozen of the best lyrics I've heard in a long time, it's a shame there isn't a deluxe booklet with every single song lyric there, to pour over.   They're available on his website, but it's not the same thing. 
I haven't told him this--and I have no idea how he'd feel about it--but I'm hoping some go-gettin' record company strikes a deal with him to "deluxify" this album, and give it the proper distribution, packaging and promotion it richly deserves. (Hey, 'bout it? This'd be a perfect fit!)

On the plus side, I've heard nothing that sounds this close to Danny O'Keefe since...well...since Danny O'Keefe!  
Songs like "The Ice Cream Changes" are at once illuminating, romantic, and inspiring: 

"Listenin' to those ice cream changes,
Time has turned us into strangers;
Still, the music sweeps along...
Turnin' memories into songs" 

See what he did there?  In O'Keefe's world, memories turn into songs, not the other way around.  He's inviting you to view things from the writers' hard-earned perspective, which is way more interesting than some sort of cheesy nostalgia trip. 
'Light Leaves the West' is
available at
Likewise, in "Help Me Up" O'Keefe alludes to the "I've fallen and I can't get up" ads, but without the usual yucks...not an easy thing to do, especially insofar as he knew you'd wanna have a moment of snark there, and instead lasers in on your compassionate self.  That is the gift of a great writer.

To be honest, I could probably write a whole blog about each song. 
To be merciful, I won’t...
I've heard way more than my share of song lyrics in this life, and not much strikes me as "new" anymore, but there are at least a couple head-turning thoughts in every single song, on Light Leaves the West.  I am grateful for this visit with a mind we should all know better, and a voice that hasn't lost a step in all these years.   
They say even God came back down to Earth, to revise and update His previous book.  This record is Danny O'Keefe's New Testament.

James Taylor never really went away.  His summer shed tours have been packin' houses for decades, and in recent years he's done pared-down world tours, cover albums, concert albums, and Christmas records--pretty much all the things an artist does, when he's done everything else.
He is regularly feted with 'lifetime achievement' awards and blue ribbons, all very well deserved...but Before This World is his first collection of new, original songs in 13 years. 
As with most singers after a certain age, the voice is ever-so-slightly less supple than it once was, and the "funky James" part of his act is hit-and-miss these days, though still a highlight of any show.
I have to confess too, I am often distracted by 'outside information'  beyond the music, when listening to new material from an old favorite, or even somebody new. 

When JT first came around, for example, the back-story was that of an underdog--fresh out of in-patient therapy, and a chance meeting with Peter Asher that resulted in his first record contract. 
James Taylor, then.

Fast-forward about a half-century, and you've got a 67 year old superstar who's weathered every trend (and every classic pitfall of stardom) to become (you guess it!)... a National Treasure.
Why do I bring all this up again?  

Because it matters.
Why even try to ignore his significance in our lives, as the first singer-songwriter of the whole era which helped define us? 
If Taylor was an underdog at the start, he's the obvious 'overdog' now--both artistically, financially, and practically. 

James Taylor, recording Before This World in his home studio.
Not everyone can walk across their driveway to a world class studio they own, and find Steve Gadd (and the rest of JT's A-list band) waiting there to record.  
I suspect it took him some time to be entirely comfortable bringing his band into his studio, to record his songs...
"I was born singing, yes I am
Grew up some kind of travelin' man;
Sunday morning, pack my things
Say 'So long, Sweet Potato, I'm on the road again'..." 

In one sense, this album is standard James fare, enhanced by note-perfect (at times almost sterile sounding) attention to detail. It's also a return to form, of sorts--echoing not so much his Apple or Columbia days, but the wintery albums he made for Warner Bros. (some of them recorded at another 'home studio') back in the mid '70s. 

"And my favorite thing is to miss my home
when I'm gone...soon as I'm gone..."

Despite its higher profile numbers (like "Angels of Fenway," which panders to Red Sox nation--annoying this Yankee fan, to no end!)  the real gems on this album are hidden in the running order.  
  "I'm not smart enough for this life I've been livin'
A little bit slow, for the pace of the game
It's not I'm ungrateful, for all I've been given
But nevertheless, just the same..."
"Montana" is a stone classic--worthy of your 'repeat' setting, and trust me, it will bear repeated listens, even if you don't immediately 'get' the line "over the ocean from here" being plunked into a song about such a landlocked place.
(Is he missing Montana? Nope.  Turns out that's An Extra Large Thought, about the tectonic formation of Montana.)  

Here's a recent performance of "Montana," followed by an  oldie you'll know. His 'studio voice' is of course a lot less shaky than this live performance on a nationally televised morning show.  Either way, the new song 'bests' the old one, for me. 

Again, the album version of "Montana" is far better than the above clip.  The studio is James's friend, more now than ever.
When he sings note-perfect, and over a perfectly recorded electric bass, it's as if time has stood still. On this record, he's ageless. In person, not as much. When you hear the gorgeously double-tracked voice sing an extended "Ohhhhhh..." at the beginning of the "Montana" chorus, you ain't leavin'.  It's an emotional high point...and would be for any artist, of any age.

Figure out the lyrics to that song another day; once you hear the studio version, you're gonna wanna hear it again. This, I know.

"Snowtime" is an obvious sequel to "Only A Dream in Rio," at least in musical terms...and JT's background singers pretty much elevate things beyond anything mere mortals might do in their home studios. If it weren't James, you might wonder if it'd ever get recorded. He manages to rhyme "mamba, samba and "La Bamba," conjures "the frozen man" yet again, and begins the track with a line or two of Spanish--almost as if to throw everything into rescuing a so-so number. 
But in the end, you're glad he did.  Because why not hear "Rio 2.0," applied to the Rio Grande?  

See? That's why the ancillary/background factors matter, in assessing an album like this. 
"You And I Again" is possibly the most melodic new song here, and it's terrific.  Too many other tracks stay within a four or five note range--and while I understand why, it's hard to give our multi-millionaire friend a pass, on decorating just any mundane melody with tens-of-thousands of dollars, in production. Sorry...just bein' honest.  

Having said that (and I realize this'll sound incongruous), this is a GREAT album, compared to anything else out there today.
My big problem (and James's) may be in comparing  anything he does today, to the dude in his twenties and thirties, who was full o' nothin' but musical juice.
That part is gone.
This, on the other hand, is the dry James--an acquired taste, for connoisseurs who've stuck with him through it all--for those of us who've been with him a while...and by "a while," I mean 47 years or so. 

As for value, it can't be beat. 
A well-to-do artist can easily afford to double your 'entertainment value' for less than 15 bucks, and this CD comes with not just a booklet but a bonus 'Making Of' DVD, which gives you a glimpse of James's process these days.
I'm always grateful when an artist of this caliber gives us a peek behind the curtain, and into his creative process, though some might find it a bit much to see his cushy compound sold as matter-of-fact beauty anyone might have. (Any mere 'rustic' setting, this ain't...
Still, he's more than earned it--wouldn't you agree?     
Some of the album ("Far Afghanistan") is the kind of stuff that relies on elaborate production techniques to decorate awkward songs that would never stand up, given a lesser voice. 
But that's just it:
James Taylor has earned not just his bounty, but our trust.  And as an artist, he's rarely let us down. 
This album fits nicely in his canon, alongside countless other things of beauty he's given us. Who knows? Maybe only two or three songs will last, but that's okay too. (It's a pretty good ratio, by today's standards.) 
Here is an American voice for the ages. James Taylor's voice is perhaps more expressive in its plaintive delivery and tonal inflections, than any other in pop music.
That he isn't given more plaudits from rock's critical community is their loss, not ours...or his.
Fact is, they (and pretty much they alone, meaning the critics) missed (and thereby dissed) a great one. 
This is our old friend, James. 
Maybe slightly less tuneful nowadays, but far more competent a recording artist than the kid we first met 47 years ago.  
Before This World takes few chances, but that's a good thing. It's a breath of fresh air, a return to form, a comfortable pair of shoes, and a warm place to lay down.  
Even your cat will like it.  


NOTE: There were no videos or full songs available to post here from Danny O'Keefe's new album, but here's Amazon's '30 second preview' of a track from Light Leaves the West
You will need to scroll down and click "PLAY," once you get here:   Amazon's "preview" snippet of "Help Me Up"

This opinion column is Copyright 2015 by Peter Rodman.  All Rights Reserved.
Opinions about music are by their very nature subjective; mine are no better than yours--that's what makes music so great! And it's why I rarely write "reviews" at all...but I was hoping this might help the curious, my age, who wondered about these new albums from our old faves. 

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