Chip Taylor remains best known—to the extent that he’s known at all—for writing a string of classic old pop hits, among them “Wild Thing” (the Troggs, Jimi Hendrix), “Angel of the Morning” (Merrilee Rush, Juice Newton) and “I Can’t Let Go” (the Hollies, Linda Ronstadt). But his finest work has come in recent years. During the last decade, he teamed with Texas singer and fiddle player Carrie Rodriguez for a series of must-hear country/folk/Americana albums, and now he’s back with a pair of different but equally noteworthy new projects.
The first of these is The Little Prayers Trilogy. Like Springsteen’s Nebraska, which its music in some ways recalls, this solo set was originally intended as a series of demos for an album that would later be recorded by a full band. But the demos sounded right to Taylor and his producer, so he wound up releasing them with only slight embellishments along with a variety of other performances on this sprawling 30-track, three-CD set.
The album, which includes two fine duets with Lucinda Williams, bears little resemblance to Taylor’s work with Rodriguez and will probably find a smaller audience. It is not the place to go for bouncy melodies, addictive hooks and sing-along choruses. The backing is spare—often just a soft piano and/or guitar—and the emotion-charged vocals are delivered like prayers or confessions, in a rough, sometimes half-spoken or even whispery voice. Subjects range from the highly personal (Taylor’s father, his relationships with women) to the societal. One is inspired by the last words of a man on death row; another addresses the Supreme Court. Virtually all the songs seem to come from a place deep inside the performer. They demand a lot from the listener, but those who pay careful attention will be well rewarded.
As if this three-CD set were not enough for one year, Taylor also served recently as producer for Queen of Diamonds/Jack of Hearts, an album by pop/soul singers Billy Vera and Evie Sands. Taylor, who wrote all but one of the songs, knows both artists well, having worked with them in the 1960s. Sands recorded the original version of “Angel of the Morning,” while Vera, who had a No.1 hit in 1986 with “At This Moment,” hit the charts in the late '60s with “Storybook Children” and “Country Girl, City Man,” both co-written by Taylor. This 14-song new package includes individual performances by both singers as well as a couple of duets. Also featured is a spirited live version of “Take Me for a Little While” (the only track not penned by Taylor) that finds Evie backed by the terrific Scottish pop-rock band Belle & Sebastian.
The collection further reinforces Taylor’s reputation as a great songwriter and Vera’s as a top-notch vocalist. But perhaps the biggest delight here is Evie Sands, whom Dusty Springfield once cited as her favorite singer and whose career has been marked by a series of “almosts.” She nearly hit it big with “Angel of the Morning,” for example, but her record label went bankrupt just in time for Merrilee Rush to steal the show with her top ten version; she also almost grabbed the spotlight with “Take Me for a Little While,” but a test pressing of her recording was pilfered and subsequently turned into a bit of a hit for Chess artist Jackie Ross. Perhaps Sands will finally garner wide attention with this new album’s riveting performances of such Taylor ballads as “I’ve Had Enough of That Girl” and “I Will Be Standing Again.”
As for Taylor himself, listen to his work with Carrie Rodriguez and then to these two latest collections and I think you’ll agree that he’s extraordinary. At age 74, he’s also more prolific than ever and doing the best work of his career.