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Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Carole King: Writer

CAROLE KING: WRITER (1970)

1) Spaceship Races; 2) No Easy Way Down; 3) Child Of Mine; 4) Goin' Back; 5) To Love; 6) What Have You Got To Lose; 7) Eventually; 8) Raspberry Jam; 9) Can't You Be Real; 10) I Can't Hear You No More; 11) Sweet Sweet­heart; 12) Up On The Roof.

Popular perception of Carole King: Nice lady composer, wrote some cool hits for (mostly) Afro-American singers in the Sixties, then sang most of them herself in 1971 on her only album Tapestry, spent the rest of her time living somewhere in California raising a family and stuff. It was so nice of the President, too, to get her out for the Kennedy Center Awards in 2015, where she spent most of the time smiling at Afro-American performers singing Tapestry almost in its entirety. Oh yes, and she's besties with James Taylor, too. They sing ʽYou've Got A Friendʼ to­gether and all that. Was he there at the ceremony as well? He must have been.

There is little reason to doubt, of course, that Tapestry is King's highest point, just out of sheer consistency, but somehow the popularity of that record has eclipsed everything else — most im­portantly, that for a short, but significant period in the early 1970s, Carole King was one of the leading figures in America's «singer-songwriter» movement. In the 1960s, she had neither the self-confidence nor the proper opportunity to emerge as a self-sufficient artist in her own rights: her voice was considered weak, her looks were way too unglamorous, and her «stage image» was non-existent. But as standards began to shatter and shift, and as a small, but stable market de­mand was formed for «sincerity» and «integrity», Carole finally took the opportunity to go public — an opportunity made easier by her divorce from husband-lyricist Gerry Goffin and subsequent relo­cation to California — and, after an unsuccessful attempt at working within the framework of an actual band («The City», whose only album will be taken care of in an appendix), finally emerged as a solo recording artist in 1970.

On Writer, she is backed by the same musicians who formed «The City» (Charles Larkey on bass and Danny Kortchmar on guitars), with the addition of a couple keyboardists, drummer Joel O'Brien, and some backing vocalists. With two exceptions, no new songs were written for the record — almost everything is credited to Goffin/King, as the lady is struggling to take back possession of all the hits, semi-hits, and non-hits that she earlier wrote for other people; only a very few of these tunes come from the vaults, like the album opener ʽSpaceship Racesʼ, which I do not think was covered by anybody prior to this release (although one year later it was success­fully covered by folk-rocker Tom Northcott). However, it's not as if we could or should blame her for this decision — imagine, say, a Bob Dylan prevented from releasing his greatest songs under his own name for more than half a decade, and having to watch helplessly as The Byrds and Manfred Mann reap all the glory!..

Anyway, most people's reaction to Writer will probably depend on what they value most about art — deep feeling and sincerity or immaculate professionalism. When you listen to ʽUp On The Roofʼ as performed by The Drifters, and then compare it to this version, the difference is striking: the 1962 recording is bouncier, the brass and string overdubs perfectly emphasize all the vocal hooks, and although lead vocalist Rudy Lewis was no Clyde McPhatter or Ben E. King, his tech­nical abilities were still way above Carole's weak, trembling nasal delivery. But on the other hand, for The Drifters singing the song was just business — the 1962 tune had one overriding purpose, to make a shiny optimistic statement to brighten the record buyer's day, and everything there, including the fantastic string solo, is focused on that statement. For Carole, though, the song is much more than that — it is a psychological tour-de-force, a confession of shyness, lonerism, and humility where "there's room enough for two", but there most definitely wouldn't be enough room for three or more (which is why entrusting the song to a vocal band was an odd decision in the first place, ensuring that its full potential could never be realized). And in this context, her vocals are a perfect match for her personality as expressed in the song — as long as she does not hit any bum notes or anything, the «weakness» of the voice emerges as the strength of the song, and I'll take King's version over The Drifters without blinking an eye.

On the whole, there isn't a single true clunker on Writer, because of the awesomeness of Carole's backlog — and there's another point, too, which speaks very much in its favor: compared to later, post-Tapestry albums, which would lean too far in the direction of corny sentimentality and mushy MOR arrangements, Writer has a bit of a rock bite to it. After all, ʽSpaceship Racesʼ does open with a distorted electric guitar lick and is ruled over by an intense, almost hard-rocking bass line — not to mention a sarcastic, almost sneering vocal delivery as the singer jabs her imaginary boyfriend for "spinning around in a Busby swirl" and "living off dreams stored up in film cans": it's almost like a feminist reversal of some typical Rolling Stones misogynist slam, and we get to see a cool rational angle of somebody who, not so long ago, was "made to feel like a natural woman", probably by the exact same guy who she now wants to "take to the Spaceship Races".

Another forgotten, but totally real highlight is ʽRaspberry Jamʼ, one of the two compositions that were specially made for the album with the lyrical participation of Toni Stern. It is not so much a pop song as it is a jazzy waltz whose title is a pun — the mid-section is a jam, with brief guitar and keyboard improvisations; certainly not a masterpiece of jazz-pop, but a very nice, moody, soothing piece of music all the same, and I am very glad it's there, because it introduces an ele­ment of complete spontaneity — breaking away from the image of Carole King as a calculated, smoothly running hit machine. She would rarely, if ever, allow anything like that on her records again (probably because she rightfully felt improvisational music would not be playing to her major strengths), but there's nothing like a little extra freedom of flight for somebody who is only just beginning to secure one's position as an independent artist.

Elsewhere, she bravely recaptures her own subtlety from The Byrds (ʽGoin' Backʼ) and Bobby Vee (ʽSweet Sweetheartʼ, one of her catchiest upbeat pop-rockers); shows great depth of feeling on the ultra-slow soul ballad ʽNo Easy Way Downʼ; and flashes a bit of idealistic political creed on the equally slow folk ballad  ʽEventuallyʼ, all of which, as far as I'm concerned, are every bit as poignant and memorable as almost anything on Tapestry. Top prize, however, goes to ʽChild Of Mineʼ, a McCartney-style piano ballad (or would it rather be accurate to call all McCartney piano ballads Carole King-style? he did take quite a few songwriting lessons from the lady in his youth, you know) that extols the joys of motherhood with endearing and totally disarming sim­plicity — and just a small, barely noticeable, drop of melancholy and lonerism in the "oh yes, sweet darling, so glad you are a child of mine" refrain, a drop that is still enough to wrench the song out of the generic corny ballpark and put it in the realm of true artistry (although we could certainly live without the tune being appropriated by hundreds of people on YouTube who just want to use it as a background for photos of their toddlers).

All in all, there may not be enough «cumulative hit power» on Writer to match the impact of Tapestry, but in all honesty, owning a copy of the latter without complementing it with a copy of the former should be considered a gross violation of the ethical code (on RateYourMusic, for in­stance, Tapestry currently features 168 user reviews, while Writer is graced with a measly four: imagine the same proportion for, say, Revolver vs. Rubber Soul, and share my indignation). As far as singer-songwriter albums from 1970 are concerned, this is one of the strongest, and it does have the distinction of positioning Carole King as an independent, self-sufficient solo artist in her own right, taking back what's hers and, even more importantly, bridging the gap between com­mercial pop of the corporate Brill Building variety and introspective musical artistry (whereas with Tapestry, you could say she actually took a few steps back towards the Brill Building as such). In any case, my verdict is a very, very strong thumbs up — and if we all really respected woman artists as much as we claim to do, I'm sure somebody would have the guts to play a 15-minute version of ʽRaspberry Jamʼ for President Obama at the Kennedy Center ceremony.

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