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Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Carole King: Rhymes & Reasons

CAROLE KING: RHYMES & REASONS (1972)

1) Come Down Easy; 2) My My She Cries; 3) Peace In The Valley; 4) Feeling Sad Tonight; 5) The First Day In August; 6) Bitter With The Sweet; 7) Goodbye Don't Mean I'm Gone; 8) Stand Behind Me; 9) Gotta Get Through Another Day; 10) I Think I Can Hear You; 11) Ferguson Road; 12) Been To Canaan.

Whirling Dervish Robert Christgau summarized this album thusly: "The melodies retain their overall charm, but because the lyrics continue their retreat, the hooks, such as they are, never jolt the expectations", and gave it a pitiful C rating. Of course, this judgement was made several years before I was born and has to be respected at least out of general respect for antiquity, but I could never bring myself to believe that Carole King got more boring just because she replaced Gerry Goffin as her chief lyricist with Toni Stern, and, ultimately, with herself. There simply has to be some other reason, considering that we are, after all, dealing first and foremost with one of the most beloved composers, not lyric writers, in pop music.

It is most certainly true that lyrics like "It's a gray gloomy day / A strange and moody blues day / Gotta get through another day" are a little embarrassing even for a non-professional in the verbal department (and maybe just one notch higher than "It's Friday, Friday / Gotta get down on Friday / Everybody's looking forward to the weekend"). But the worst thing about ʽGotta Get Throughʼ are not the words, but the incomprehensibly bland and lazy melodic flow — its monotonously thumping piano chords never gel into a memorable hook, and its vocal melody never rises above a tepid, unenthusiastic self-admonition: remember the sheer energy and determination of ʽBeauti­fulʼ, a song that could really give somebody a great kick-start for the day, and compare it with this mushy piece — pleasant enough, but hardly rising above the average level of a typical theme for some third-rate talk show or soap opera.

Horrendously, every single song on Rhymes & Reasons is like that. The only difference is that a few of the tunes are slightly more upbeat and give some work to the rhythm section (besides ʽGot­ta Get Throughʼ, there's also ʽBitter With The Sweetʼ, which is at least great to hear because of some more of that first-class funky work from the wonderful, totally underrated Charles Larkey), but most are slow, sentimental ballads, and the rot that began to surreptitiously creep in at the time of the still good Music, has now settled in decisively. Everything is pleasant and «tasteful»; nothing is memorable or outstanding. Above everything else, the energy level may be described by a near-flat line for all of the album's 35 minutes — not a single peak, outburst, cli­max etc. anywhere in sight. It's almost as if she took the refrain of the first song ("so come down easy, let it come down slow") for granted, and the entire album does nothing but come down slow and easy. All the arrangements are the same (piano, acoustic guitars etc.); instrumental passages are nearly non-existant, replaced by streams of boring lyrical images that contain their share of rhymes, but I couldn't say the same about reasons.

I mean, you definitely have a problem when you have a song called ʽFeeling Sad Tonightʼ, yet there is nothing whatsoever in the song's mood to suggest a feeling of sadness — then, of course, you realize that the words really go "feeling sad tonight, but everything's alright", and that is pre­cisely what's happening, because everything's definitely alright, and there's no reason to get emo­tionally riled over anything. Essentially, this set of songs is just completely devoid of inspiration: on ʽStand Behind Meʼ, she asks us, somewhat en passant, "Should I create today / Or let it be?" Guess what the answer should be. In this context, the last song, ʽBeen To Canaanʼ, allegedly expressing deep longing to revisit a long-lost earthly paradise, could be metaphorically construed as the author's implicit lament at this uncomfortable sterility — "though I'm content with myself, sometimes I long to be somewhere else... I won't rest until I go back again". She even released that song as a single, but it is just as sterile melodically as everything else, and I'm pretty sure people were just buying it out of politeness — yes, dear Carole, please go back again!

In short, as curious as it is, here we do have ourselves a situation when an artist, in less than two years' time, goes from producing the perfect model of a singer-songwriter pop album to produ­cing the most generic and yawn-inducing model of a singer-songwriter pop album ever. And it has nothing to do with the lyrics — it is the music that is a real letdown, a slipshod application of the formula that captures the artist in a mellow, self-content, emotionally stable mode and is es­sentially the musical equivalent of some pretty landscape painting in the local three-star hotel. Curiously, it still managed to sell real well in the US, but trans-Atlantically, sales totally plum­meted and marked the complete end of Carole King as a (still relevant) international artist — be­cause, it may be presumed, this kind of music (muzak?) could only interest the local market, and even then, only for a short while longer. Thumbs down, by all means; I don't think even a single song from this lot should be making it over to anybody's best-of collection.

1 comment:

  1. This was that time when nobody knew what record to buy. James Taylor? Nah Carol King Nope. Gordon Lightfoot? Are you kidding? Pure Prarie league? Yes! New Riders of the Purple Sage? Cool! Jerry Jeff Walker. Viva Terlingua! The Red Headed Stranger. Oh Wait I gotta go to work.

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