Sun Pedal Recordings, 2012
REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 08/02/2012
Legacies are tricky things. When you’re following in the footsteps of not one but two musical legends, where do you even begin? Ben Taylor, son of ’70s singer-songwriter icons James Taylor and Carly Simon, resisted the siren call of the music business for a number of years before succumbing, Jakob Dylan-like, in his mid-20s. Since then he’s built a solid reputation as—no shocker here—an insightful singer-songwriter with an appealing, accessible voice and a sharp yet charming wit.
Where he’s succeeded in carving out his own unique creative path is in the variety of textures and styles he’s incorporated into his music beyond its familiar core of easy-going, pop-inflected contemporary folk. Listening features elements of soul and reggae and country-folk and hip-hop sprinkled throughout, lending the album a kind of heady musicality. Taylor’s comfortable-in-his-own-skin charisma allows him to stretch his gifts out in genuinely interesting and appealing ways.
The title cut starts things off with a deceptively gentle acoustic vibe that serves to underscore the power of Taylor’s lyric. It’s a nice bit about slowing the world down to really communicate, that’s helped along by his ability to effortlessly pull off rhymes like “gracefully… race with me.” “Oh Brother” embraces and celebrates family connections, a Hammond-accented bounty of brotherly advice for his younger siblings that also calls on Pops, first echoing a key line from “You’ve Got A Friend” and then name-checking JT while engaging in spot-on mimickry of his father’s playful vocal gymnastics. Toward the end, Taylor’s sibling advice takes the form of a virtual topic sentence not just for this album but for his entire musical career: “All you’ve got to do is be who you are.”
Here, Taylor firmly establishes himself as a sort of sly-grinning musical alchemist, mixing and matching the easy-going reggae-soul of “Oh Brother” with the arch David Gray-ish electro-pop of “Not Alone” and the homespun country-folk ambience of “Giulia,” the latter arriving complete with whistled bridge. The wise, confident playfulness that’s clearly part of Taylor’s creative inheritance permeates songs like the terrific “Worlds Are Made Of Paper,” with its effortless lyricism and insistent melody line. (You have to love how he turns "do" into a five-syllable word in the latter, as well.)
There’s more seamless genre-mixing to come as Taylor adds blues-funk elements to “Vespa’s Song” and “America,” features a smooth, clean guest rap by friend John Forté on top of the hooky little soul-pop groove of “Dirty,” and delivers a sterling dream-pop number with “Burning Bridges.” The latter’s key lines—“Wisdom cures so many things” and “I don’t want to change the world / I just want to stop pretending”—are characteristic, casually-tossed off little nuggets of insight. Closing up strong, Taylor lifts the flirtacious “You Could Be Mine” up on the shoulders of a reggae shuffle and finishes with a sleepy-eyed, acoustic, end-of-the-evening entreaty for his listeners to join him again “Next Time Around.”
This one will. Listening is an album full of gentle wisdom and sharper insights, varied textures and consistent quality. What more can an artist ask than this: as soon as this album finished, I wanted to hear it again.
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