James Taylor – Sweet Baby James

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More Sweet Baby James

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  • With two seriously good Double Plus (A++) sides, this copy was one of the best we played in our recent shootout – exceptionally QUIET vinyl too
  • Just listen to all that lovely echo – it’s a dead giveaway that both sides have resolving power far beyond the other copies you may have heard 
  • A Top 100 Title, inarguably a Masterpiece – Fire and Rain and Suite for 20 G (one of JT’s All Time Best) are out of this world here
  • 5 Stars: “Sweet Baby James launched not only Taylor’s career as a pop superstar but also the entire singer/songwriter movement of the early ’70s that included Joni Mitchell, Carole King, Jackson Browne, Cat Stevens, and others…”

Vocal reproduction is key to the best sounding copies of Sweet Baby James as it is on so many Folkie Pop Rock albums from the era.

To find a copy where Taylor’s vocals are front and center — which is exactly where they should be — but still rich, sweet, tonally correct and Tubey Magical is no mean feat. Only the best copies manage to pull it off.

Out of the dozen or more Green Label early pressings we play every year, relatively few have the full complement of midrange magic we know the best copies can have. As a rule of thumb, the hotter the stamper, the better the vocal reproduction on that copy.

Hot Stamper sound is rarely about the details of a given recording. In the case of this album, more than anything else a Hot Stamper must succeed at recreating a solid, palpable, real James Taylor singing live in your listening room. The better copies have an uncanny way of doing just that.

If you exclusively play modern repressings of vintage recordings, I can say without fear of contradiction that you have never heard this kind of sound on vinyl. Old records have it — not often, and certainly not always — but less than one out of 100 new records do, if our experience with the hundreds we’ve played over the years can serve as a guide.

What outstanding sides such as these have to offer is not hard to hear:

  • The biggest, most immediate staging in the largest acoustic space
  • The most Tubey Magic, without which you have almost nothing. CDs give you clean and clear. Only the best vintage vinyl pressings offer the kind of Tubey Magic that was on the tapes in 1970
  • Tight, note-like, rich, full-bodied bass, with the correct amount of weight down low
  • Natural tonality in the midrange — with all the instruments having the correct timbre
  • Transparency and resolution, critical to hearing into the three-dimensional studio space

No doubt there’s more but we hope that should do for now. Playing the record is the only way to hear all of the qualities we discuss above, and playing the best pressings against a pile of other copies under rigorously controlled conditions is the only way to find a pressing that sounds as good as this one does.

Transparency and that Feeling of Reality

One thing we learned from our shootout was the how important TRANSPARENCY is to the enjoyment of this music. Of course this has to be a multi-miked, multi-tracked, overdubbed pop record — they don’t make them any other way — but it doesn’t have to FEEL like one.

When you get a good copy it feels like all these guys (and gals, can’t forget Carole King!) are playing together live in the studio. They may have their own mics, and they are certainly being placed artificially in the soundfield to suit the needs of the track (piano over here, guitar over there, drummer behind the singer), but the transparency of the better pressings makes them sound like they are all in the same room performing together.

What We’re Listening For on Sweet Baby James

  • Energy for starters. What could be more important than the life of the music?
  • Then: presence and immediacy. The vocals aren’t “back there” somewhere, lost in the mix. They’re front and center where any recording engineer worth his salt would put them.
  • The Big Sound comes next — wall to wall, lots of depth, huge space, three-dimensionality, all that sort of thing.
  • Then transient information — fast, clear, sharp attacks, not the smear and thickness so common to these LPs.
  • Tight punchy bass — which ties in with good transient information, also the issue of frequency extension further down.
  • Next: transparency — the quality that allows you to hear deep into the soundfield, showing you the space and air around all the instruments.
  • Extend the top and bottom and voila, you have The Real Thing — an honest to goodness Hot Stamper.

Cut Clean

Sibilance is a major problem on some of the tracks on Sweet Baby James, as noted in the Track Listing commentary. No copies won’t have some spit, but the best have less, a clear sign that the cutter head was doing a bang-up job. (The opposite is of course true for Mobile Fidelity records, which tend to be quite spitty, an indication that their cutting system was never as good as they claimed it was and far from what it should have been.)

TRACK LISTING

Sibilance is a major problem on some of the tracks on Sweet Baby James, as noted in the Track Listing Commentary. No copies won’t have some spit, but the best have less, a clear sign that the cutter head was doing a bang-up job. (The opposite is of course true for Mobile Fidelity records, which tend to be quite spitty, an indication that their cutting system was never as good as they claimed it was and far from what it should have been.)

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.)

It’s also one of the spittiest tracks on the entire album. If you want a good tracking test for your arm and cart, this one should do the job nicely.

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. On top of that, it’s great music!

AMG Review

Taylor’s sense of wounded hopelessness struck a chord with music fans, especially because of its attractive mixture of folk, country, gospel, and blues elements, all of them carefully understated and distanced… As a result, Sweet Baby James sold millions of copies, spawned a Top Ten hit in “Fire and Rain” and a Top 40 hit in “Country Road,” and launched not only Taylor’s career as a pop superstar but also the entire singer/songwriter movement of the early ’70s that included Joni Mitchell, Carole King, Jackson Browne, Cat Stevens, and others.

Rolling Stone Review (4/30/70)

Last August James Taylor was quoted in Rolling Stone thusly: “I hope my next album will be simpler. It has to be, because the music is simple and a big production job just buries all my intentions.” Well, this first post-Apple album dovetails nicely with that anticipation, even down to the inclusion of Stephen Foster’s “Oh, Susannah,” buck-wheat cakes in her mouth and all.

Peter Asher (formerly at Apple with Taylor) produced this album, as well as Taylor’s first, and, one can hear, let Taylor have free rein this time. Echoes of the Band, the Byrds, country Dylan and folksified Dion abound, yet somehow Taylor pulls through it all with a very listenable record that is all his own. The gentle, intelligent manipulation of piano, steel guitar, fiddle and a few brass arrangements alone deserve a close listening to by any erstwhile producers.

And it is hard to fault Taylor’s lyrics. “Sweet Baby James,” with its “cowboys waiting for summer/his pastures to change” and “Fire and Rain” with its “Sweet dreams and fire machines in pieces on the ground” are just a few of the images that Taylor develops. Throughout, his vocal stance is low-key and perfectly matched to the country-styled guitar work. No acute solos or overstressed melodies appear as musicians and vocalist together manage to mandala their way through Taylor’s persistent lonely prairie/lovely Heaven visions that, at times, work their way up to the intensity of a haiku or the complexity of a parable.

Taylor only shifts from this stance a couple of times. “Oh Baby, Don’t You Loose Your Lip On Me” is less than two minutes long; bluesy yet random, it sounds like studio hijinks used to fill out an album. But the other exception, “Steam Roller,” is a different story. Here Taylor is earthy and lowdown with definitely crude electric guitar behind him as he moans “I’m gonna inject your soul with some sweet rock and roll and shoot you full of rhythm and blues.” Then a miasmic, brass riff to make sure things stay tough, followed by a particularly timely and potent a couple of verses: “I’m a napalm bomb for you baby/stone guaranteed to blow your mind/and if I can’t have your love for my own sweet child/there won’t be nothing left behind.” A double-entendre tour-de-force pulled off effortlessly.

This is a hard album to argue with; it does a good job of providing that his first effort was no fluke. This one gets off the ground just as nicely, as Taylor seems to have found the ideal musical vehicle to say what he has to say.

– Gary Von Tersch, Rolling Stone, 4/30/70

The Year in Music

1970 was a great time in music. Tea for the Tillerman, Bridge Over Troubled Water, Moondance, Alone Together, Tumbleweed Connection, After the Goldrush, The Yes Album, McCartney, Elton John, His Band And Street Choir, Deja Vu, Workingman’s Dead, Tarkio, Stillness, Let It Be — need I go on?

Even in such illustrious company — I defy anyone to name ten albums of comparable quality to come out in any year — Sweet Baby James ranks as one of the best releases of 1970.

Click HERE to see the records currently on the site that were recorded or released in 1970.

And HERE to see the records from 1970 that we’ve reviewed. 

Heavy Vinyl

Steve Hoffman and Kevin Gray’s 180g reissue released by Warner Brothers a few years back is actually pretty darn good. In fact, it’s the best sounding heavy vinyl reissue we’ve played in years. Those of you who’ve been with us for a while know that that’s really not saying much, but it doesn’t make it any less true either.

That said, the amazing transparency, dynamic energy, and pure analog magic of the Hotter Stamper copies will probably never be equaled by an audiophile pressing. It hasn’t happened yet and we remain skeptical that it ever will.