Miss King's past accomplishments have become something of a pop music legend. She and her former husband and lyricist, Gerry Goffin, were one of the three great independent pop song-writing teams of the Sixties, the other two being Burt Bacharach and Hat David, and Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil. It is as much to their credit that they not only wrote one of Aretha Franklin's best songs, "Natural Woman," but Steve Lawrence and Edyie Gorme's best, "Go Away Little Girl," as well. They wrote the Animals' best pop record, "Don't Bring Me Down," and Bobby Vee's best seller, "Take Good Care of My Baby." Then there was "Chains" and "Don't Say Nothing Bad About My Baby" for the Cookies, "One Fine Day" for the Chiffons, "The Locomotion" for Little Eva, and "Oh, No, Not My Baby" for Maxine Brown. And, of course, there were some for the groups: They wrote Herman's Hermits best song, "Something Tells Me I'm Into Something Good," two for the Righteous Brothers, "For Once In My Life" and the overlooked and under-rated "Hung On You," and "Goin' Back" and "Wasn't Born to Follow" for the Byrds. She even had a hit for herself about ten years ago called "It Might As Well Rain Until September." On top of them all, there was "Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow" for the Shirelles and "Up On the Roof" for the Drifters.
A Gerry Goffin-Carole King song was always engagingly sentimental. It was boy-girl, loneliness-togetherness, "Don't Bring Me Down" versus "Hung On You.' 'My baby's got me locked up in chains" versus "Will you still love me tomorrow" music the very core of the rock & roll lyric sensibility. The music expressed the outlook with a sweetness that ultimately shine through no matter what the context. The chorus of "Hung On You" is simply a beautiful tune. "Chains" has a blues structure but the melody is pretty, pretty pop music. Even "The Locomotion" has an amazingly distinctive melody line for a dance song. (And Little Eva ten years ago sounds so exactly like Carole King today one can only assume that Carole taught it to her note for note and breath for breath.)
The songs of Goffin and King are superb examples of the song writing craft of the Sixties. Finely honed to meet the demands of the clients who commissioned them, and written with the requirements of AM radio always firmly in mind, they still managed to express themselves in a rich and personal way. Like Hollywood directors who learned how to make the limitations of the system work for them by the use of their own imagination, Goffin and King made the limitations of AM music work for them and in the process created something of their own pop vision.
Towards the late Sixties the independent song-writing system broke down as more and more artists preferred to write their own material. Feeling the pressure, Miss King, now separated from Goffin, struck out as a performer, first in the unsuccessful group the City, and now as a solo artist. Not surprisingly, the music she is making today is closely related to the music she created in the Sixties.
The theme of both Writer and Tapestry is the search for lasting friendship, friendship that can be trusted, friendship that can be felt. Those feelings are expressed in a music that is substantially looser and more far ranging than the early melodies. No longer confined to the requirements of writing for someone else and for AM radio the music has grown more intricate, more subtle, and more technically impressive. Similarly, the production on both her albums has been in a soft-sounding, FM-oriented approach, eschewing AM style altogether. These changes have not been altogether positive.
Carole King: Writer was a blessing despite its faults. The rhythm section was made up mainly of her musical friends from Jo Mama and the arrangements sounded like they were pieced together in the studio. The production was poor, managing to sound both labored and sloppy at the same time. Carole herself was mixed too low on many cuts and the band would up with an unusually tinny sound, considering the kind of music they were playing. And yet Carole's own personal determination and talent transcended these irritants to make the whole thing very worthwhile.
"Child of Mine" is a lyrically simple song addressed to a child from a parent. The singing is unaffected, the music striking in its purity. And yet the turn of phrase, the subtlety of the composition, give the song a tension that goes beyond the surface simplicity. "Raspberry Jam," one of the few songs on the album that Gerry Goffin didn't write the lyrics for, is similarly seductive. At its center is a jazzy, tilting doodle of a melody. However, the chorus leads us back to more familiar territory: a very majorish line that stands in an almost liberating contrast to the verses. "Sweet Sweetheart" is likewise filled with fun the song is about a boy who "overlooks the bad and keeps all the good in mind."
The single most rewarding thing about the first album was the chance to hear her sing three of her best known songs. "No Easy Way Down" is a masterpiece of a pop ballad with almost symphonic crescendos. "Goin' Back" is a less demanding song that shines in the relaxed setting Carole creates for it. And finally, there is "Up On the Roof." I suppose it is the song's unpretentious awareness of the oppressiveness of the city that has caused its recent revival, but whatever, the reason. Carole's version is absolutely haunting. She transcends the ordinary production to speak directly to the listener. And when she sings "... Oh, let's go, up on the roof," the spark is there. She has done what she set out to do: communicate.
Tapestry was recorded with much the same personnel and the new producer, Lou Adler, has cleaned things up: still a certain flaw in conception remains. The band sometimes lacks the looseness and flexibility coupled with precision that only professional sidemen can offer. The arrangements strive too openly for effect and sometimes Carole herself catches the bug and pursues the emotional highpoints a little too hard, when a bit of understatement would have served her better.
And yet these flaws are balanced by the presence on several cuts of the best California session drummer since Hal Blaine, namely Russ Kunkel, and a fine performance by Joel O'Brien on the others; excellent bass by Charlie Larkey; and Carole's own, superb piano playing. Only the guitars sound consistently stiff and weak and maybe it just sounds that way to me because I keep hearing folkie acoustic sounds where the songs cry out for some of Cornell Dupree's "Rainy Night in Georgia" style: sinuous jazz and pop lines, played with a master's touch.
In fact, there are places where I think a straight pop production something along the lines of Dusty Springfield's Dusty In Memphis would have provided a better, more relaxed context for the music. But, in the end, such speculation leads to nothing. Whatever the context, Carole takes control of it and uses it to say what she has on her mind. Every note reminds you that Tapestry is not the work of pop star backs diddling around in the studio to relieve their own boredom, but the work of an artist still capable of personal creation.
Carole's voice has often been criticized for being too thin. That it may be, but on Tapestry it is marvelously expressive from first to last. On the opening cut. "I Feel the Farth Move" (one of six songs she wrote entirely on her own), she begins on a raunchy note and works herself into a very bluesy mood. Then, when the song reaches the chorus, the melody blossoms into a pretty pop line as Carole's tone goes from harsh to soothing and she sings.
Ooh baby, when I see your face,
Mellow as the month of May
Oh, darling, I can't stand it
When you look at me that way.
"Beautiful." another uptempo song runs through similar changes. The song constantly alternates verses in a minor key with choruses in a major one, with the emotion being expressed varying accordingly. "Where You Lead," with lyrics by Toni Stern is an ingratiatingly witty song that seems to parody the romantic extremes of some of Carole's earlier work:
I always wanted a real home
With flowers on a window sill.
But if you want to live in New York City,
Honey, you know I will.
Russ Kunkel drives the arrangement with the kind of power other drummers dream about.
"Smackwater Jack," an uptempo shuffle with lyrics by Goffin, shows how rewarding their collaboration could be. While Goffin is embellishing the simple musical structure with some brilliant and far-ranging lyrics. Miss King is subtly embellishing the musical form itself. The best of it comes on the turn around after the verse when she tells us that "You can't talk to a man with a gun in his hand." O'Brien and Larkey absolutely outdo each other on this cut.
Two of the album's pleasantest moments are hearing Carole sing "Will You Love Me Tomorrow" and "Natural Woman." She makes no effort to compete with the standard versions but instead gives each an entirely fresh and original interpretation. The next to the last song on the album is the lovely title song and Miss King performs it as a solo. For the last song. "Natural Woman," she is joined only by her husband, Charlie Larkey, on bass. It sounds like something out of one of her songs.
Happily, Carole wrote the lyrics for the two best cuts on the album, two of the best songs I have heard in months, if not longer; "So Far Away" and "You've Got A Friend." She proves that she can be her own best lyricist as she expresses a simple thought with a line like:
So far away,
Doesn't anybody stay in one place anymore
It would be so fine to see your face at my door.
Doesn't help to know you're just time away.
The simplicity of the singing, composition, and ultimate feeling achieved the kind of eloquence and beauty that I had forgotten rock is capable of.
"You've Got A Friend" is Carole's most perfect new song. If anything, lyric and melody are more firmly wedded to each other than in the past. When Carole sings, "You just call out my name/ And you know, wherever I am/ I'll come running to see you again," just as the music shifts into the slightest trace of Latin, "Spanish Harlem" liltingness, the only word to describe it, both as performance and composition, is perfection. And then she finishes the statement, over a gorgeous, righteous rock melody with
Winter, spring summer or fall,
All you've got to do is call
And I'll be right there,
Ain't it good to know, you've got a friend.
That thought remains both her outlook and her subject matter: friendship. No one has recently expressed its full range of feelings as well as Carole King and she has done it no where as finely as on Tapestry.
And still there is an area of feeling on this record that is hard to get at. Tapestry is both a collection of songs and an album. This music is not the product of someone adopting styles and then discarding them when they are no longer useful. Tapestry is the product of a musician with a specific point of view and the ability to express it through a personal style. It is an album that takes a stand: it doesn't balance one cut against another, one style against another, one feeling against another.
When I heard Stephen Stills' album for the first time I honestly wondered whether he liked it. It seemed like he had so little to say and yet so much he was required to produce so much. The songs were well crafted but vacuous. There was no tension, nothing to sustain the music, nothing to make it compelling. And all those names listed on the credits only obscure the fact, they don't conceal it.
On After the Gold Rush, Neil Young didn't need the names. He didn't need anything but a good band that could help him express his musical identity. His album was no melange of approaches but a sustained tour de force of self-expression. Have you ever noticed on Deja Vii, how it really does all sound the same until the first side gets to "Helpless, Helpless"? That song tells us instantly what Neil Young has and his partners lack: conviction and commitment to a specific stylistic point of view and the talent to express it flawlessly.
Conviction and commitment are the life blood of Tapestry and are precisely what make it so fine. Of course, commitment alone means nothing: but commitment coupled with the musical talents of a genuine pop artist mean everything. To paraphrase Pauline Kael, writing about director Jean Renoir. Carole King is thoroughly involved with her music; she reaches out towards us and gives everything she has. And this generosity is so extraordinary that perhaps we can give it another name: passion.
Curtly Mayfield, in a song written at just about the same time Carole was writing "The Locomotion" put it another way: "The woman's got soul."
(RS 81 - April 29, 1971)
(Posted: Apr 29, 1971)
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