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Main Category: Lush Pop
Also applicable: Pop Rock, Roots Rock
Starting Period: The Artsy/Rootsy Years
Also active in: The Interim Years, The Punk/New Wave Years,

The Divided Eighties, From Grunge To The Present Day



Disclaimer: this page is not written by from the point of view of a Carole King fanatic and is not generally intended for narrow-perspective Carole King fanatics. If you are deeply offended by criticism, non-worshipping approach to your favourite artist, or opinions that do not match your own, do not read any further. If you are not, please consult the guidelines for sending your comments before doing so. For information on reviewing principles, please see the introduction. For specific non-comment-related questions, consult the message board.

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Year Of Release: 1970
Overall rating = 12

Well, what DID you expect from one of the most professional songwriters of all time going solo?

Best song: CHILD OF MINE

Track listing: 1) Spaceship Races; 2) No Easy Way Down; 3) Child Of Mine; 4) Goin' Back To Love; 5) What Have You Got To Lose; 6) Eventually; 7) Raspberry Jam; 8) Can't You Be Real; 9) I Can't Hear You No More; 10) Sweet Sweetheart; 11) Up On The Roof.

Much too often, I see Carole King's records judged on commercial merit - which is not as ridiculous as it may seem, because, after all, Carole King was a patented hitmaker, a commercially-oriented machine churning out hot-selling singles for multitudes of artists. If they were commercially successful, they were artistically successful as well. If they were (occasionally) flops, well, they were flops; no one remembered them. So why should anything be different when dealing with Carole King's own records? Writer didn't sell too well, so we'll call it a record where she "still hasn't found her style". Tapestry sold millions, so we'll call it Carole King's high point and, uh, maybe even "all the Carole King you need to own".

Bollocks to that, I say. Carole King had been writing songs for over a decade now; if she didn't record them on official major labels (she did make demos and stuff like that with her own singing recorded), that doesn't mean she didn't have her style well-established already. In fact, Writer gets the benefit of being stylistically more diverse, daring, and experimental than the ensuing records - if there are a few deviations from the classic Goffin/King hit formula, that's not a problem of not being able to establish a style, that's a problem of wanting to broaden it. And I don't see a single dud on this album, experimental or not.

As expected, Writer is laid-back and "soft-rockish" in style, and yes, James Taylor does guest on it and even adds backing vocals to 'Goin' Back'. But Carole is ten times the songwriter Mr Taylor ever could expect to be, and when the songwriting is good, I can easily tolerate the soft-rock formula. Heck, with these subtle, unexceptional acoustic-guitar-meets-piano arrangements Carole is running exceptionally high risks - but she pulls off every song just because at this point, her skill at creating light, user-friendly hooks and peppering them with her emotional vocal delivery is unparalleled. You could complain of insincerity, of course, but what's the point? Every single song sounds as sincere as only possible, to a large extent, thanks to the vulnerable beauty of Carole's voice. She's not a great knockout singer like, say, Karen Carpenter, but she has the benefit of sounding more "human" - with that shaky, slightly raspy pair o' chords and all.

In fact, her limitations are obvious: for instance, take a song like 'Child Of Mine' and see how insecure she sounds when pulling those high notes on the 'child of mine, child of mine...' refrain. A Karen Carpenter or, better still, an Aretha Franklin would do this much better. But then she goes down into 'oh sweet darling, so glad you are a child of mine', and neither Karen nor Aretha could have conveyed that feeling of love, awe, and even maybe a little bit of fear for her treasure with that much conviction. The gorgeous piano ballad, by the way, is the album's obvious highlight, and one of the most touching "kid songs" ever written. A great starting point for beginning songwriters, too, I'd say - so simple, so minimalistic, and yet so effective. They should teach that in class.

Yet, like I said, there's not one dud on the album, and even when Carole tries doing things in a non-formulaic way, she succeeds. 'Spaceship Races', for instance, rocks more than almost any other song she's recorded, with a scorching (okay, relatively scorching) electric guitar part from Carole's long-time partner Danny Kortchmar; 'I Can't Hear You No More' is almost as good, but maybe slightly less memorable on the whole, although Carole's "pissed-off" vocal delivery works perfectly; contrary to popular notion, the woman wasn't all sugar and sweets. Then, on 'Raspberry Jam', Carole justifies the 'jam' in the title by having the entire band jam in the jazzy mid-section, with real jazzy guitar runs and stuff - and, unbelievably, even if it's all amateurish, it works. If she had the nerve to make the song, like, ten minutes long or something, it wouldn't, but two minutes of guitar/organ/chimes soloing sound fresh and even emotional.

Other favourites of mine would include: 'Goin' Back', a song that was earlier made by the Byrds into a highlight on Notorious Byrd Brothers, and delivered here in an equally good, although, of course, differently arranged version (it should be stated that on these early albums, Carole often turned to past material from her songwriting career - not that there's anything wrong with that); the countryesque 'To Love', which again confirms the Carole King Formula - take a generic verse melody, add a BIG hook in the chorus, and the whole song becomes a masterpiece; the slow, stately anthem 'Eventually', which isn't particularly special as far as the melody goes, but is beautifully arranged and performed; the upbeat friendly 'Sweet Sweetheart', where I always expect a 'come on without, come on within, you ain't seen nothing like the Mighty Quinn!' chorus due to the verse melody, but fact is, it's quite different, and it's just a light variation upon a generic country tune and it works like magic; and, of course, the closing ode to joy, 'Up On The Roof', which is too beautiful to describe in words. You need to hear it.

All in all, Writer just sets the tone. There's no true innovation or groundbreaking here. This is a living testament to the Power of Tremendously Good Songwriting, and thus, one of those records where reviewing really can't help a lot. I can't imagine anybody being offended by this record on first listen; I can't imagine anybody not liking this record on second listen; and I certainly can't imagine anybody not thinking of Carole King as a major talent on the third one. And she's a beautiful singer - perhaps the most important aspect of this whole thing. Who knows what I might have thought of this record had I not been lulled into submission by her vocal delivery. Who knows!



Year Of Release: 1971
Overall rating = 13

You've never heard total commercial formula done quite like THIS!

Best song: IT'S TOO LATE

Track listing: 1) I Feel The Earth Move; 2) So Far Away; 3) It's Too Late; 4) Home Again; 5) Beautiful; 6) Way Over Yonder; 7) You've Got A Friend; 8) Where You Lead; 9) Will You Love Me Tomorrow?; 10) Smackwater Jack; 11) Tapestry; 12) (You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman; [BONUS TRACKS:] 13) Out In The Cold; 14) Smackwater Jack (alternate version).

One definite album that shows you really can't dismiss any genre before listening to the best things it has to offer. Tapestry is totally inoffensive, absolutely and profoundly commercial, undeniably formulaic soft-rock with no claims at innovation or rebellion or shock value, certainly the kind of album that would be seen as the perfect example of the "capitalistic mass production pop-art" serving as opium for the people. As far as "social relevance" goes, it is the complete equivalent of today's Celine Dion or Mariah Carey: a bunch of simple love songs with cliched lyrics and not much of anything hiding below the surface - when the sole piece of 'protesty' social commentary in the form of 'Smackwater Jack' comes along, it is almost laughably out of place.

And yet, Tapestry shows just how irrelevant all these things are in the face of far superior odds - such as melodicity, catchiness, disarming simplicity, and humane, undisguised sincerity. And songwriting indepence, too. Back in 1971, the album finally gave Carole universal acknowledgment as a self-contained performer of her own material, not just a professional Brill Building hack, and that certainly might just have been due to the early Seventies singer-songwriter and soft-rock boom, the same one that made a star out of Carole's pal James Taylor, but the success was deserved anyway. If anything, though, I don't think selecting Tapestry out of the string of the four or five Carole albums of the epoch as the one undisputed masterpiece is really deserved; it may be a wee bit more consistent than some of the others, and boast a couple totally unbeatable pop classics, but if you like it as much as I do, don't make the mistake of ignoring the rest of her stuff.

The good news here is that the production and the playing are unsurpassed - Carole's terrific backing band make even the subpar songs sound delicious. No corny Hollywoodish orchestration a la Carpenters or anything, but strings are used throughout sparsely, with a string quartet on a few tracks. More of that light jazzy touch in places, with Kootch showcasing his training. Great backing vocals, some of them provided by none other than Merry Clayton (you probably remember her singing on 'Gimme Shelter', doncha?). And on top of that, Carole's own singing has improved as she slowly starts gaining more confidence - she now can safely use a more "rip-roaring" approach where necessary, even tackling some gospel-influenced material like 'Way Over Yonder', one of the album's less interesting tracks overall but still totally acceptable in the album's context.

The songs, as far as I'm concerned, differ in quality: for my money, nothing beats the opening triad of 'I Feel The Earth Move', 'So Far Away', and 'It's Too Late', with my personal favourite always alternating between the three. The first of these actually rocks, continuing the tradition of 'Spaceship Races', and you gotta love the way Danny and Carole trade guitar/piano soloing in the instrumental section. The second, with its universally recognized 'doesn't anybody stay in one place any more' line, is among the best ballads ever written, of course; no need for special comments. And I guess the chorus of the third one is common knowledge as well, with Carole's funny rasp - 'it's too late baby now, it's too late, though we really did try to make it...'.

So the bad news is that the album doesn't quite live up to these three openers, but what could? Besides, maybe not all the melodies are instantly memorable, but if anything, Tapestry just gets by with an unsurpassable amount of warmth, energy, and optimism. 'Beautiful' may not be the best song in existence, but it's certainly one of the most optimistic ones, and if listening to Carole singing 'you've got to get up every morning with a smile on your face and show the world all the love in your heart' doesn't make you smile, well I can't help you dude - and I'm not just talking about the lyrics, because I dislike generic preachiness as much as the next guy (actually, more than the next guy), I'm talking about the general sunny feel of the song. If I were to make a compilation of "Classic Songs Guaranteed To Brighten Up Your Day", it'd probably be a toss-up between 'Beautiful' and 'Good Day Sunshine' as the opener (well, all right, maybe throw in a third candidate from the likes of Stevie Wonder).

Of course, there's also more sunny pop in 'You've Got A Friend' and '(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman', two classic R&B-style ballads respectively appropriated by James Taylor himself and Aretha Franklin. They're pretty goddang good, but maybe not too exceptional. I myself prefer the jolly upbeat country rock of 'Where You Lead' (with a classic vocal-harmony-trading between Carole and Merry Clayton) and the slightly more troubled atmosphere on 'Will You Love Me Tomorrow?', with both Taylor and Joni Mitchell on backing vocals (marked as "The Mitchell/Taylor Boy-and-Girl Choir" in the liner notes!). I'm also a sucker for 'Smackwater Jack' - that oh-so-Seventies outlaw tale is completely and absolutely out of touch with the rest, but it's good clean fun anyway, and when a song's good clean fun, I actually like seeing it as a 'disruptor'. I mean, if there's eleven songs on an album all written according to the same formula and one written according to a different one (but not any worse by itself), gimme this "disruptive" sequence any time of day.

The recent CD re-issue adds a fine previously unreleased outtake ('Out In The Cold', which could have easily been part of the album) and a superfluous live rendition of 'Smackwater Jack' from mid-1973, as well as a really pretentious James Taylor intro where he raves about how "exceptional was commonplace" back in the days of the Laurel Canyon shenanigan. Judging by his list of suspects, though (The Eagles? Jackson Browne?), I'd add "...and commonplace was not exceptional" to that remark. But never mind, that's just me. Great album anyway, even if HE played on it.



Year Of Release: 1996
Overall rating = 11

Hey, maybe YOU could be there too some day!

Best song: that long medley, I guess.

Track listing: 1) I Feel The Earth Move; 2) Home Again; 3) After All This Time; 4) Child Of Mine; 5) Carry Your Load; 6) No Easy Way Down; 7) Song Of Long Ago; 8) Snow Queen; 9) Smackwater Jack; 10) So Far Away; 11) It's Too Late; 12) Eventually; 13) Way Over Yonder; 14) Beautiful; 15) You've Got A Friend; 16) Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow/Some Kind Of Wonderful; 17) (You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman.

An archive release of the "better late than never" variety. I didn't expect too much of it, of course, and... well it's no great shakes, but it does offer a few wonderful surprises. First of all, as far as I know, Carole did not have much of a live performer reputation, and "touring" wasn't exactly her lifestyle. The Carnegie Hall booking occurred in conjunction with the huge success of Tapestry, of course, and she was all nervous as heck to be playing that place, too. So the whole atmosphere of this thing kinda reminds me of, well, you know, that send-chills-down-your-spine moment when you've been dragged onstage to display your talents before several thousand people and you suffer from stage fright and you make every single effort not to make your voice crack and all that...

...really, it's very noticeable on here how much she's afraid - occasionally cracking silly, but funny jokes just to cheer herself up rather than entertain the audience, shyly thanking everybody a million times after each song, and singing in this trembling, shaky, uncertain voice. It's a marvel she pulls off most of the songs - every time she reaches for a high note I shiver, realizing that voice is just about to crack, but it does so only in a couple spots. (According to her confession in the liner notes, though, there were two shows that night and for the second one her voice was already totally shot).

On the other hand, it's rather brave of a performer so uncertain of herself to begin the show with a lengthy solo set - just herself and the piano, dumping the rich multi-instrumental arrangements of songs like 'I Feel The Earth Move' and the gospel vocal harmonies of 'No Easy Way Down' (she supplies a few of those lines, like 'the view from the top must have been exciting... EXCIIIITING!' herself, but that was hardly necessary). Overall, that's the best part of the show, the most hard-hitting on an emotional level. That Brooklyn girl and a piano, and great songs, including such personal statements as 'Child Of Mine', as well as a preview of 'Carry Your Load' from the upcoming Music.

The basic trick later on is to bring out the backing players one by one - first, Charlie Larkey on bass, then, after a couple songs, Kootch on guitar, then bringing in a mushy string quartet, and finally, to a grand slam of applause, materializing James Taylor out of thin air. Thus there's never a dull moment, and absolutely no "over the top" playing: out of seventeen songs, the instrumentation of ten is limited to piano and bass. No backing harmonies either, although she does, of course, duet with Taylor on several numbers. Anybody wants to complain? Not me.

Overall, the setlist is naturally mostly comprised of Tapestry - ten of the songs are played, each and every one re-arranged for the "minimalist" approach. For the haters of 'Smackwater Jack': you might like this live piano-and-bass version better... then again, probably not. But the audience sure liked it as they even dare to clap along. It's also fun to hear Carole go 'pweeeing pweeeing' as she imitates the wah-wah guitar on 'It's Too Late', performed here in a sort of "joke" manner (apparently, by the time Kootch appeared onstage Carole was feeling a bit more comfortable).

The big culmination, of course, comes along with the arrival of Mr Taylor ("in a beautiful white suit", Carole observes in the liner notes, but for some reason, the only photos of him I see are in a striped pirate-style T-shirt - what, is the heat on even at a Carole King concert?). They sing a lovey-dovey oh-so-cute duet on 'You've Got A Friend' (but I dare say she shouldn't have let him sing any of the verses! Let James Taylor sing at James Taylor concerts!), and then a big pompous medley of 'Will You Love Me Tomorrow' and 'Up On The Roof', with a brief snippet of 'Some Kind Of Wonderful' in between. Which just reminds me some more of what a great song 'Up On The Roof' is. What a wonderful way to finish the concert (although she still comes back to do 'Natural Woman' for an encore).

A special treat, of course, is Carole's patter between the numbers. "This is probably a sure way to get applause, but... I was born in Brooklyn". (Loads of applause). 'Well, if I ever run dry as a songwriter, I can always go into flower business" (I guess somebody was tossing her a bouquet or something). Lots of half mumbled stuff about how she occasionally forgets the words to her songs (right before the oh-so-wordy-indeed 'Smackwater Jack'). In short, you just can't argue with this kind of charisma. Sure ain't no lame Mike Love stage banter indeed.

Toss in a couple rarities like 'Snow Queen' (not one of her best songs, but nice to see something unpredictable), and Carnegie Hall Concert is a treat for even the casual Carole King fan. Sure you can't expect too much, and I didn't, but I got much more than I expected. And if you ask me, it's always nice to get more on this human angle of the entire business. After all, Carole King the woman can frequently get lost behind the glossy sheen of Seventies soft-rock production (getting worse progressively), and live mementos like these are just the thing to restore some truth.



Year Of Release: 1971
Overall rating = 11

Music indeed, but is it great music? Philosophy class dismissed.


Track listing: 1) Brother Brother; 2) It's Going To Take Some Time; 3) Sweet Seasons; 4) Some Kind Of Wonderful; 5) Surely; 6) Carry Your Load; 7) Music; 8) Song Of Long Ago; 9) Brighter; 10) Growing Away From Me; 11) Too Much Rain; 12) Back To California.

Starting from here, Carole slowly begins the painful process of losing her reputation. Yes, here, because Music marks no progress from its two predecessors and clearly shows her contention with the predictable commercial formula. Writer was inventive and moderately daring; Tapestry was a bunch of extremely well molded songs designed to break her big; Music is just more capitalizing on the results.

Of course, this complaint makes no sense, because you don't exactly expect a professional songwriter with a decade of Tin Pan Alley experience behind her back to go and make a Krautrock record or invite The Rick Wakeman Collective to play a ten minute classical suite on her album. But what gets me down more is that Music actually cuts down on the inventiveness and the hooks in favour of The Introspective James Taylor Thingie: there's too much soft-rockish fluffy filler on here behind which I can't see too much of Carole's personality. If you don't see what I mean, go ahead and compare a song like 'Child Of Mine' with a song like 'Surely'. The first one is emotionally gripping, the second one is just a pleasant-sounding mushy mess that even Dusty Springfield could have done better. (Not to mention some of the clumsiest lyrics in Carole's history - "surely you know how I stand on the question of my loving you"? Surely there's a less convoluted way of expressing that idea? I'd personally prefer "surely you know that I love you" instead).

So it's a serious disappointment, but not in every respect. The sound is basically the same as on Tapestry, with the same backing band and even the same James Taylor harmonizing on a couple tracks. The singing keeps ever improving. The atmosphere is, of course, warm and inviting. So if you manage to disregard the fact that there's not a single song on here that's as strongly and tightly defined as 'I Feel The Earth Move' and 'It's Too Late', you might not even be bothered with it again - personally, I keep falling asleep by the time 'Surely' comes by, but that's just me.

Most of the material is new here, although she does record the old chestnut 'Some Kind Of Wonderful' - one of her more-well-known but less-memorable ballads of yesterday. The two songs "previewed" at the Carnegie Hall are also here, and in their full-aranged versions they are more easily appreciated than in the minimalist live setting - 'Carry Your Load', with its friendly brass riffs, comes across as one of her most successful optimist statements. However, the one masterpiece here is surely 'Song Of Long Ago': gentle and romantic as nothing else, with tear-inducing harmonies, and gee, I didn't think I'd come around to say it, but Taylor's vocal contributions to the song are crucial (and he double-tracks them too, the scoundrel!). It's the one moment of bliss for which I forget all about the "formula" and just wonder at how effortless the beauty of the song actually is.

Elsewhere, I, of course, perk up my ears at the songs that are at least a little bit more upbeat - 'Brighter', for instance, manages to be catchy and not too trivial, and while 'Sweet Seasons' hardly lives up to the glorious optimistic opening, I can at least tap my foot to it. The only song on the album that can be said to "rock" a little bit, though, is the closing 'Back To California', but it's somewhat a misstep because for some reason Carole decided to do something proto-Eagles-like, a redneck Southern rocker which is about the last thing a Brooklyn girl should ever try to do. Still, when you actually check the lyrics, you find out it's an anti-Southern rant, a cry of protest against the Southern ways from somebody who wants to be "back in California"! So count this as one major put-on, friends. It does provide some fun as a novel number, and it has a great electric piano part from Ralph Schuckett, too.

One should also mention the title track, which is sort of an expansion of the thing initiated with 'Raspberry Jam' - it's a full-fledged jazzy excursion with loads of wildass instrumental overdubs and a brass section aimlessly (in almost jam-mode) roaming all over the place. And 'Brother Brother' explores Carole's social concerns in a much more 'universalist' manner than 'Smackwater Jack', although the song itself is rather corny.

So it's not a bad album at all, but listening to it I can't get rid of the feeling that Carole was intentionally targeting the "lowest denominator", taking the easy way out. At least half of these songs, with a backing band of such highly professional stature, could have been both written and recorded over one session, on autopilot. It's definitely lower than Carole's previous standard by all means, and its commercial success pretty much signalled that that would be Carole's main direction in later years, precipitating her decline into writing second-rate forgettable schlock. That said, there's still way too much talent (and, occasionally, passion) pumped into these songs to just ignore the record. And some actually find it more "personal" than Tapestry, which I entirely disagree with, but hey, that's life.


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