As a songwriter, Chip Taylor has never seemed to be able to rest on his considerable laurels. Since his return to music in 1996, he's made a series of roots music records, including those with Carrie Rodriguez and Kendel Carson, that have all been critically acclaimed. Yonkers, NY, a double-disc set, may be his most ambitious and most self-indulgent album (not that the latter's a bad thing). Nearing 70, Taylor writes a lot about the past here as he looks back on his life and times in that little suburb just north of the Bronx where he and his brothers -- actor Jon Voight and geologist Barry Voight -- grew up, and reveals some family secrets along the way (none of them dark). The band includes guitarist John Platania; Greg Leisz on pedal steel, mandolin, and Dobro; bassist Tony Mercadante; pianist and accordionist Seth Farber; Carson on fiddle; and drummer Tony Leone -- and the music is drenched in classic Americana: folk, country, and rockabilly. On this 11-track set, Taylor recounts his adventures musically and, in some tracks on the first disc -- such as the opening "Barry Go On (Put Yourself on the Mountain)" and "Bastard Brothers" -- he recounts spoken stories. There are brief written commentaries on the songs in the deluxe hardbound lyric and photo booklet as well.
For those interested in hearing these reminiscences only once, disc two contains just the songs, and this is where the real power of the album lies. Check "Charcoal Sky," the set's most tender cut. The pace is slow and the tale is of an old train station, as Taylor recounts the trips his father took him and his brothers on to visit the station so they could lay their nickels on the tracks, tell stories of the conductors, and whenever possible introduce them to one another. "Gin Rummy Rules" is a thinly disguised confessional narrative (done in a 4/4 country shuffle). In the early rock & roll style of "Hey Jonny," Taylor avenges the injustices done to Bill Haley's music by DJs of the period who thought he was black and wouldn't play his records. He enfolds "Rock Around the Clock" into his narrative about the film Blackboard Jungle. Likewise, in "Saw Mill River Road," he employs Johnny Cash's "Big River." Each track pays tribute to some aspect of Taylor's autobiography but also, more importantly, the story of his town. These are summed up in the shuffling honky tonk meets '50s rock of "Yonkers Girls" and the closing title track, a simple but heartbreaking ballad of Taylor's youth, of the town's magical place in his life. Yonkers, NY is filled with intimate, often humorous songs with touches of melancholy and longing; it's about an old-timer reflecting his wisdom about innocence. It's unlike any other record Taylor's made. Recordings like this -- full of stories, humor, and personal reflection -- are rarely made anymore. Therefore, we have all the more reason to treasure them.