Sunday, June 16, 2013

“Carole King: Music,” by Carole King

In January of 1971, Carole King and a group of her friends recorded an album at A&M Records that defined an era. Tapestry was a classic-filled monster, holding the #1 position on Billboard’s album charts for four months that summer and launching King as a superstar. Up to that point, Carole King had been most known as a writer of pop hits (e.g., “Will You Love Me Tomorrow?” “(You Make Me Feel Like A) Natural Woman,” “Up On A Roof,” “The Loco-motion,” etc.), but Tapestry signaled the musician as one of the most reliable singles artists of the coming decade. Indeed, while her albums made less and less impact as the decade wore on (exceptions: Really Rosie, in 1975, and Pearls: Songs of Goffin and King, in 1980), King delivered some of the best, 1970’s radio-ready ear-candy, including such staples as, “Been To Canaan,” “Nightingale,” “Jazzman,” “Only Love Is Real,” and “Hard Rock Café,” helping us to navigate that tumultuous, stone washed decade.

Later that same year, King and friends returned to the studio, amidst the avalanche of promotion and performances that followed the massive success of Tapestry, and they crafted the magnificent and sadly underappreciated, Carole King: Music. Now, here’s the thing: rock writers always make one of three observations about any follow-up to a blockbuster album: 1.) “Ugh, it’s a mechanical, cash-in rewrite of their last album,” 2.) “Ugh, it’s an artist trying too hard to be fresh; they should have stuck with what they do best, you know, like on their last album,” 3.) “Sigh, the new album’s okay, but doesn’t quite possess the “magic” of their earlier work, you know, like on the last album.” Responding to Music, critics o’ the moment took all three positions: Robert Christgau called Music “mechanical,” and Rolling Stone suggested King had strayed too far from the Tapestry formula and that Music “…doesn't have its predecessor's sure, unified sense of style.” Sigh. “...Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose…”

I’d argue, however, that Music stands not only as one of King’s very best albums, ever, but constitutes an album of songs that any artist of that time (or of this time!) would have killed for.  In fact, two of the songs were recorded and made hits by other artists, including Karen and Richard Carpenter, who took “It’s Going To Take Some Time” to #12 in the spring of 1972. Ironically, that Music arrived in the wake of the Tapestry behemoth both ensured its success (it reached #1 just a few, short weeks after its December, 1971 release) and sealed its fate as the “oh, that was the so-so next album...” In fact, all of King’s subsequent (and consistently solid) work, post-Tapestry, faced the same, unfair comparison. No matter, though, as King has certainly received her due, with numerous Grammy awards, gold/platinum albums, hit songs, induction into the Rock-and-Roll Hall of Fame, and this May, King was the first woman recipient of the Library of Congress “Gershwin Prize” for popular song. Well done, Library of Congress, well done.

Music opens with the engrossing, “Brother, Brother,” written just months on the heels of Marvin Gaye’s classic single, “What’s Going On,” also with the phrase, “Brother, brother…” Was it an echo of Gaye’s lyric, as Rolling Stone suggested? A response to Gaye’s anthemic statement? Or was it more personal for King, whose own brother lived with disability? It works beautifully, either way, and remains a fan favorite, as well as one of many shoulda-been-a-hit-single songs off the album. Other songs that could have been big hits in 1972 include: “Surely,” which is an voluptuary slice of blue-eyed soul that could have been a big hit for King or for any number of R&B artists from the era (e.g., Al Green, Aretha Franklin, Dusty Springfield, Diana Ross, etc.), the sweet, James Taylor harmonied, “Song Of Long Ago,” and the vibrant, catchy-as-hell, “Brighter.”

All would have faired more than well amongst the trifle hit songs of 1972: “Alone Again (Natrually)” (Ugh. Because you deserve to be), “Candy Man” (Um, creepy much?), “Brand New Key” (Maybe, brand new...NO!), and “Baby, Baby Don’t Get Hooked On Me” (Don’t worry, I won’t. Seriously...). And speaking of singles, King’s label at the time, Ode, oddly released only one single from Music, the wonderfully sunny, “Sweet Seasons,” which reached #9 in the spring of 1972. Interesting side note: the B-side of the “Sweet Seasons” single is a lost gem, “Pocket Money,” from the long-forgotten 1972 film of the same name, starring Paul Newman and Lee Marvin: a great, unheard song, but widely available today on various CD and digital formats and one that I include as a “bonus” track for this superb album, as it was likely recorded during the Music sessions and nicely fits the overall tone of the album.

Other key album cuts include King’s version of her own song, “Some Kind Of Wonderful,” which is a slowed down iteration of The Drifters’ magnificent hit song from 1961. What I love about King’s version is how intimate the lyrics become with her tender reading. “Carry Your Load” contains a solicitous lyric about the support and kindness of an old friend. I think about this song most when I think about Kristina and Simon. And of course, there’s the title track, “Music,” that’s lyrics testify to the uplifting power of music, and more specifically, the sheer pleasure of writing music for the masses – what a great privilege that must be: “…Ah, summer is over; But the music keeps playing…pictures are forming inside my brain; Soon with the colors they'll rain together and grow…but the music keeps playing.” An apt description of the writing process.

And my favorite song is the album’s finale, “Back To California,” which Rolling Stone magazine, in 1971, called a “throwaway” track. It’s my favorite song on the album, albeit for personal reasons. In the last 24 months, it’s become Kristina’s and my theme song: a love song to our adopted home state. After flying back last year from a trip did we realize how thrilled we were to be coming “home” to California. King’s lyric resonated: “So won't you carry me back to California; I’ve been on the road too long; take me to the West Coast, daddy, and let me be where I belong…” I return to Carole King: Music, just as often. 

Saturday, June 8, 2013

“Fandango,” by Pat Metheny, Alan Silvestri, and various artists

A first for this blog, and perhaps a first for any album review: I’m writing about an album that, technically, doesn’t exist. Also a first for this blog, Fandango is not a formal album by one particular artist, which is an underlying theme for this blog, but a compilation of many musicians. That said, it’s one of the best albums that never was from one of the most underrated films of the last few decades, so I’m including it, here. Fandango is a 1985 film, starring Kevin Costner in one of his first leading roles and directed by Kevin Reynolds, who would go on to work with Costner in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991) and the ill-fated, Waterworld (1995). But in 1981, Reynolds was a budding, student filmmaker, whose graduate student film, Proof, about the antics of his fraternity at Baylor University, caught the attention of one, Stephen Spielberg, who was impressed enough to offer financial backing for a feature-length film. Reynold’s graduate student short film became Fandango, one in a line of hundreds of archetypal, road trip/coming-of-age films. This one is set in the U.S. Vietnam era, 1971, and it follows the “farewell fandango” of “The Groovers,” a group of college friends, two of whom had just received notice that their draft deferral had expired, requiring them to report for military duty in the Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia conflicts.

While the movie played all of two weeks in a limited number of theaters across the country, cable television and late-night syndication have given the film an extended shelf life, and it has garnered a dedicated cult following in the almost 30 years that have passed since its release. And deservedly so. It’s a cool movie. Regarding the rumored release of an official soundtrack, some “super fans” of the film report owning a uber-obscure cassette soundtrack of the film and claim the album had limited release in conjunction with the movie decades ago, but most seem to concur that the soundtrack for Fandango was never released as an actual album. And that’s a pity, since the music used in the film perfectly captures the sadness, angst, frustration, fear, and excitement of the five central characters, each facing vastly different, post-college fates.

The film includes classic rock tracks of the era by Cream, Elton John, Carole King, Classics IV, Blind Faith, and Steppenwolf, as well as perfectly fitting mood pieces by the legendary Los Lobos and the obscure, Milton Brown and the Brownies. These songs are interspersed with Alan Silvestri’s (Forrest Gump, Back To The Future, Cast Away, The Avengers, etc.) remarkably descriptive film score and three Pat Metheny contributions: the gentle piano ballad, “September Fifteenth,” an affectionate tribute to Bill Evans, who died during the song’s recording, “It’s For You,” which beautifully framed the wedding dance scene with Costner and Suzy Amis, which is the emotional centerpiece of the movie, and the heartbreaking, “Farmer’s Trust, (5:50 mark)” which sets the mood for the tender dénouement of the film. Pretty. Poignant. Perfect. Silvestri’s imaginative score is also, sadly, not widely available, save for a few Fandango songs being included on the end of the now-out-of-print soundtrack for the even more obscure, 1994 film, Blown Away.

That factoid and much of the other information about this exceptional, non-existent album was gleaned from an outstanding Fandango film fan site, which also suggests a soundtrack song list, but I’ve compiled my own, wonky iteration, here:

  1. Cream, “Badge”
  2. Elton John, “Saturday Night's Alright For Fighting”
  3. Los Lobos, “Ay Te Dejo En San Antonio”
  4. Carole King, “It's Too Late”
  5. Classics IV, “Spooky”
  6. Alan Silvestri, “Smooth Talk”
  7. Alan Silvestri, “The Other Side Of Madness”
  8. Alan Silvestri, “Acknowledgement”
  9. Steppenwolf, “Born To Be Wild”
  10. Milton Brown And The Brownies, “Taking Off”
  11. Pat Metheny And Lyle Mays, “September Fifteenth”
  12. Pat Metheny And Lyle Mays, “It's For You”
  13. Pat Metheny, “Farmer's Trust”
  14. Blind Faith, “Can't Find My Way Home”
I think what strikes me most about the songs Reynolds used for Fandango is the way, when taken together, they perfectly recreate the zeitgeist of that particular point in time for many White people in the United States: the end of the 1960’s and the beginning of the 1970’s. The music, when listened to as a piece, feels like that tumultuous era and conjures the thoughts and feelings connected to that moment of significant, political unrest and social upheaval, that moment of heartbreaking war and fear, that moment of great expectations and personal freedom. And Reynold’s classic movie does the same; it’s worth seeking out. Afterwards, you’ll need the above song listing (and a little internet ingenuity) to complete your own groovy soundtrack. 

“Here’s to us and to what we were.” 

“And what we’ll be...”