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. 

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