Listening in Depth to James Taylor – Sweet Baby James

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More Sweet Baby James

Listening in Depth

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Another in our series of Home Audio Exercises with advice on What to Listen For (WTLF) as you critically evaluate your copy of the album.

This White Hot Stamper is GUARANTEED to BLOW YOUR MIND, as James himself so famously sings on Steamroller here, and you can be sure that he never heard it sound any better on playback than it does here. This is truly Master Tape Sound — transparent, present and Tubey Magical, the kind of sound that only the best pressings from the era can lay claim to. If you’ve got the stereo to play it, this record may become your new favorite Demo Disc. Yes, it’s that good.

Just listen to all that lovely echo; it’s a dead giveaway that side two has resolving power far beyond the other original pressings you may have played.

In addition the bass is note-like and well-defined — just listen to the intro for Suite for 20G. Guaranteed you have never heard that song sound better than it does right here.

Tubey Magical Analog

This is the real thing, folks — both sides are warm, rich, full-bodied, and as sweet as candy. The resolution is unusually high, allowing you to hear all the texture of the various instruments. This copy is also exceptionally transparent — you can easily pick out any of the musicians and follow their playing over the course of a song. There’s real depth to the soundfield, and the vocals are about as clean and clear as we’ve ever heard them. The piano has real weight, as does the bottom end. The immediacy and presence are OFF THE CHARTS.

Sides One and Two

This time around there were more top quality side twos than side ones. Side two on this copy earned our highest grade of A Triple Plus.

Side one was just a step behind at A Double Plus — it’s not quite as full sounding as side two, which is especially noticeable on the horn parts. Compare the horns on side one and side two here and you will no doubt hear exactly what we mean. (Be sure to turn up the volume good and loud and have your system fully warmed up and tweaked to perfection. You’re really going to hear something with this record!)

Note how extended and open the top end is on this side one. There’s so much air and space around the vocals and harmonics on the guitars. Folks, not too many sound like this!



In-Depth Track Commentary

Side One

Sweet Baby James
Lo and Behold
Sunny Skies

James’ voice and the acoustic guitars should be warm, sweet, and surrounded by ambience. On a good copy, one that gets this song right, it’s pure milk and honey.

Steamroller

A big production number with rockin’ guitars and big brass. Some copies will be too bright and aggressive when the horns come in, and the majority of those that aren’t will be too dull on the other tracks. Only a copy with superb tonal balance will sound correct for both the rockers and the ballads.

Country Road
Oh Susanna

For some reason this song is too loud relative to the others on side one, so if you want it to sound right we recommend you bring the volume down a notch or two. (Those of you with a remote on your preamp finally have a good use for it.)

Side Two

Fire and Rain

Not just a wonderful pop song, this is a sonic triumph for ol’ JT and a great test track for side two. The bowed bass will tell you everything you need to know about how well-defined the bottom end is — on the best copies you should be able to make out the texture of the bow running across the strings of the bass. There are also some powerful cymbal crashes which are key to evaluating the extension on the top end.

Blossom
Anywhere Like Heaven

An extremely tough test. If side two is cut with its highs intact, Anywhere Like Heaven is going to spit a bit. There’s only so much a cutting engineer can do; the sibilance is on the tape.

Oh Baby, Don’t You Loose Your Lip on Me

Listen for the engineer’s voice at the beginning of this track. On the best copies he is clear as a bell.

Suite for 20 G

Very possibly my All Time Favorite James Taylor song. A writer once coined the phrase “bottled sunshine” in a review I read years ago, and it stuck with me. I can’t imagine a better example of bottled sunshine than Suite for 20G. Taylor’s double tracked voice is actually triple tracked in places where he is singing his own high harmony parts. Add to that a big group in the studio for the choruses and you have a whole room full of great singers giving this one their all.

It’s also the perfect Big Speaker Demonstration Track. The sound is wall to wall and floor to ceiling, big and bold as it gets. Music like this needs full-bodied sound to do what it’s trying to do; you need to be able to move lots of air in your listening room to bring this music to life. You can be sure this group of horn players was moving huge amounts of air in the studio. Would have loved to be there!



Further Reading

We have a large number of entries in our new Listening in Depth series.

We discuss the issue of Sibilance in a number of listings.

We have a section for Audio Advice of all kinds.

You can find your very own Hot Stamper pressings by using the techniques we lay out in Hot Stamper Shootouts — The Four Pillars of Success.

And finally we’ll throw in this old warhorse discussing How to Become an Expert Listener, subtitled Hard Work and Challenges Can Really Pay Off.

Because in audio, much like the rest of life, hard work and challenges really do pay off.