For pop artists of a certain generation, taking on the Great American Songbook has become somewhat of a rite of passage, occasionally bordering on cliché. Some, like Linda Ronstadt and Carly Simon, got to it early in their careers, while legacy boomers like Bob Dylan and Paul McCartney offered up their reinterpretations of jazz standards as late-career curiosities, or in the case of Rod Stewart -- five volumes and counting -- reinvented themselves with them. James Taylor is no stranger to cover songs; everything from early rock to Motown and cowboy songs have popped up in his catalog, not to mention a pair Christmas albums and an entire 2008 set called Covers. As one of the most revered American singer/songwriters of the mid- to late 20th century, it seems almost inevitable that he would eventually take his turn to honor the generation of pop tunesmiths that preceded him.
On American Standard, Taylor applies his gentle magic to classics like "My Blue Heaven" and "The Nearness of You," refashioning their well-worn melodies into the friendly and inviting mode that is his signature. Wisely eschewing the orchestral big-band approach, he stays on familiar ground, recording on a smaller scale at his barn studio in Western Massachusetts and working with his regular stable of players. He also downplays the role of the piano, opting instead to base the material around the nimble intertwining of his own acoustic guitar and that of jazz guitar wiz John Pizzarelli. The result is a relaxed musical conversation that perfectly underscores Taylor's tender vocals, especially on his sweet rendition of "Moon River," a song so well-suited to him it seems like it should have already existed before now. This sense of pleasant familiarity more or less guides the entire album as he turns "Teach Me Tonight" and "It's Only a Paper Moon" into James Taylor songs written by other artists. Horns and lush backing vocals do appear here and there, as does a slightly misguided dip into a borderline cartoonish vocal baritone on the otherwise strong "Ol' Man River," but the best parts of American Standard occur in the intimate moments that constitute Taylor's wheelhouse and of which there are more than enough to satisfy.