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What’s in a name?” asked Shakespeare’s Juliet. “That which we call a rose / By any other name would smell as sweet.” True enough in principle, the statement will provide little comfort to fans of Richard Marx who accidentally buy the new album by Richard Marks or fans of James Taylor who accidentally buy the new album by the James Taylor Quartet.
And vice versa.
Richard Marx is a platinum-selling pop singer-songwriter best known for “Hold On to the Nights,” “Right Here Waiting,” and “Angelia,” chart-topping, late-’80s ballads especially beloved of listeners whose favorite segment of Casey Kasem’s countdowns was the long-distance dedication. But there was always more to Marx than treacle, and he got better as he went.
By the time that shifting tastes left him commercially high and dry in the early ’90s, he was approaching Lionel Richie levels of middlebrow sophistication. And the dozen songs on his new release, Limitless (BMG), reveal that, even at 56, he remains a consummate craftsman, linking universally recognizable sentiments to instantly irresistible hooks with all of the efficiency, but none of the mechanization, of an assembly line.
Richard Marks, on the other hand, was a funky but overlooked soul singer-guitarist who succumbed to cancer in 2006. From 1968 to 1976, he recorded a string of hard-hitting but obscure singles. Then, in 2014, Now-Again Records compiled 21 of them for an album called Never Satisfied, and people finally began to take note.
Now-Again’s new Marks collection, the two-disc Love Is Gone: The Lost Sessions: 1969-1977, feels more diffuse, indulging as it does the usual completist excesses (alternate versions, demos). But it also shows more of Marks’ range, revealing a softer, Al Green–like side on the acoustic numbers and an appealing anti-purist streak on the cuts that edge toward disco. For what it’s worth, none of them approach Lionel Richie.
The James Taylor Quartet’s People Get Ready (We’re Moving On) (Audio Network Limited) edges toward disco too. But even with Philly-soul strings, a freestyling flute, a punchy saxophone and trumpet, and a song titled “Boogie On Through the Night,” the foursome stops short, mainly because drummer Pat Illingworth lays off the hi-hat and because, on the six songs with words, guest vocalists Natalie Williams and Noel McKoy insist on being heard as more than window dressing.
They do not, however, stand out. To do so would cancel out the teamwork aesthetic essential to the Soul Train–era vibe that Taylor, though he’s British, clearly has in mind.
America’s James Taylor—he of “You’ve Got a Friend” and “Handy Man” fame—has in mind an older vibe on American Standard (Fantasy). Following in the footsteps of his first wife Carly Simon circa Torch, Taylor thumbs through the Great American Songbook and discovers an unprecedented level of relaxation by meeting the likes of Rogers and Hammerstein halfway and getting to express, for 45 uninterrupted minutes, something other than himself.