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I Love that Song! #16: “Your Smiling Face” by James Taylor

alan headshot from schoolBy Alan Haber – Pure Pop Radio

It’s just five or maybe six notes ascending and pounded out to merge into traffic at the start, a way of getting to what amounts to a chorus of a sort, except it’s more a verse, really, and there really isn’t a chorus to speak of in this uptempo pop song that is all about love.

james taylor your smiling face 45 labelNo, there really isn’t a chorus to be heard in James Taylor’s uptempo charmer “Your Smiling Face”–just verses and bridges, building blocks sliding in and out of each other as an entrancing melody glides almost effortlessly above them. It’s quite a bold choice, eschewing choruses instead of a more conventional pop music songwriting approach, but it’s a solid choice because those five or six notes signal the start of the show and put the audience in their seats.

The opening song on James Taylor’s JT album, his eighth release, almost 41 years old, is a classic piece of melodic pop songwriting and performance, however you look at and classify the art. It’s under three minutes long and doesn’t waste a note, it’s supremely catchy and it’s played to perfection by ace musicians familiar to anyone who read liner notes or Rolling Stone, for that matter, back in the day–guitarist Danny “Kootch” Kortchmar, drummer Russ Kunkel, and bassist Leland Sklar, of whom more in a moment.

“Whenever I see your smiling face/I have to smile myself/Because I love you/Yes I do/And when you give me that pretty little pout/It turns me inside out/There’s something about you baby/I don’t know,” Taylor sings to start the song proper, and it’s a mouthful, I know, but all of those words are necessary to start the show.

“No one can tell me that I’m doing wrong today/Whenever I see you smile at me,” he sings at the song’s end. It’s that universal feeling that is the ultimate panacea; it’s what you think and say when just the right person stops you in your tracks on a day that seems purposeless and soulless because of this or that happening and makes you smile, telling you that everything will be alright.

It’s all about that smiling face. Who doesn’t love to meet one of those? So Taylor sings about the smiling face effect within the framework of a catchy, upbeat pop song that has not a single whiff of a chorus. Such a feat of legerdemain!

What puts this song over the top and makes it the perfect album opener are the individual elements that combine to bring the song to life. Taylor’s sweet and measured vocal, not to mention but hey, let me do it anyway, his on-the-mark falsetto (“No one can tell me that Iiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiii’m doing wrong today”) is the top draw here, but even still, one can’t discount Russ Kunkel’s dutiful drumming, short on flash but long on what the song needs–a steady beat, although there is a swishy roll in there just because.

Holding court with his fluid, inventive bass lines is Leland Sklar, who breaks out of what the song probably expects of him starting at about a minute and 28 seconds in; he punctuates his bass notes with short, sharp stabs, coming in right before Kunkel’s snare hits. And then Sklar is off to the races; his bass appears louder in the mix and, at the two minute and 10 second mark he channels Paul McCartney, sliding up and down his fretboard for just two blessed acrobatic, melodic seconds, but those two blessed seconds nearly make the whole song.

james taylor jt album coverAs the song fades out, confident in having fulfilled its mission as JT’s album opener and table setter, you are feeling as though the song has ended prematurely, or you at least want to hear it again, as I have since first hearing it upon its release.

And I have heard it again and again while I was writing this piece. I have loved looking under the hood at the various elements that make the song tick. It’s fun to poke around to see how a verse is not a chorus even though it kind of is, and so on.

It’s nice also, sometimes, to meet up with a smiling face and, you know, smile back.

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Pure Pop Radio’s signature shows, Alan Haber’s Pop Tunes Deejay Show, playing the latest and greatest melodic pop songs from today and across the decades, and Pure Pop Radio: In Conversation, the premiere Internet melodic pop talk show, air weekly on Pop that Goes Crunch Radio.

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