James Taylor October Road

Few have aged as gracefully as James Taylor. Evolved from darling folkster to an overly sensitive and highly successful singer/songwriter, Taylor has persevered through the consistent strength of his recorded output and powerful touring machinery. Hell, he’s even outlived Lester Bangs’ scathing criticisms, maturing along with a generation who line up for his every calming move like therapy for the woes of their world. Surrounding himself with the cream of L.A. session players and producers, Taylor can do no wrong, penning sophisticated pop gems that soothe like suave as they thoroughly satisfy. Rhythmically advanced, Taylor attacks blues, jazz, R&B and, in this case, Christmas carols with sheer confidence and that little tongue-in-cheek quirkiness that has become his trademark, which excuses any cornball indulgence as "just plain fun.” October Road features a who’s who of players, note Ry Cooder’s significant lead guitar contributions to the title track, in addition to those of drummer Steve Gadd, and violinist Stuart Duncan and Taylor’s superb roster of hand-picked backing vocalists that are so key to his sound. Reunited with old-time producer Russ Titelman, this is new ground, with its ability to swim upstream without the need to sound contemporary, knowing his fans can take it. There are no radio classics here (although "Carry Me On My Way” and "Whenever You’re Ready” come close), just James sounding mellow, confident and predictably polished. (Columbia)