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Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Carole King: Simple Things


1) Simple Things; 2) Hold On; 3) In The Name Of Love; 4) Labyrinth; 5) You're The One; 6) Hard Rock Cafe; 7) Time Alone; 8) God Only Knows; 9) To Know That I Love You; 10) One.

The start of an era: Carole's first album for Avatar Records, with a completely new team of musicians and a seriously different sound, even if, from the very first track, it is quite obvious that most of the change has been external and superficial. Her voice and piano, fortunately, are still at the core of the sound, but on the whole, the arrangements become tougher and more elec­tric: strings and horns are still in, but acoustic guitars are mostly out, largely because of Carole's new partner, Rick Evers, who sort of steered her in a slightly heavier direction.

Critical reception for Simple Things was frigid at best: common consensus seemed to imply that Carole King had become a stubborn dinosaur, refusing to evolve and adapt to the times — alle­gedly, Rolling Stone dubbed it «the worst album of 1977» (with Kansas and Uriah Heep still on the prowl? you sure ain't no gentleman, Mr. Wenner!), and the bad reputation still persists, seeing as how all of Carole King's pre-Avatar record catalog still remains in print, whereas some of those later albums seem to have never even been released in CD format. Indeed, like most of the American soft-rockers of the first half of the decade, Carole was in trouble — it would have been very hard to imagine her as a disco dancer, let alone a punk rocker, and her natural shyness and reclusiveness was becoming less and less convenient in an epoch that was placing more and more emphasis on flashiness and visual imagery. In a way, it is quite amazing that she still had enough credit left for the album to go gold, by pure inertia...

...especially if you also take into consideration the arch-ridiculous decision to take the worst track off it and release it as a single. See, not only does Carole King have no business writing a track called ʽHard Rock Cafeʼ — a bit like seeing Judas Priest at the local Renaissance Fair — but even if it is just business and she was paid by the Hard Rock Cafe for promotion or something, why write and arrange it like a friggin' mariachi band number? All of a sudden, in the middle of this still very personal and intimate bunch of ballads and soft-rockers, you get the artificially «happy» and utterly generic atmosphere of a banal carnival. As a corny B-side outtake or a publicity jingle, it would be okay, but as the first public announcement of The New Carole King, it was a highly predictable embarrassment, a serious lapse of taste that could only alienate the critical community — most of the members of which were far too busy in 1977, anyway, to listen to a new Carole King album from top to bottom.

Which is too bad, since there are at least some good songs here, and overall, I would consider it a significant improvement over the consistent mediocrity of Thoroughbred — on the first go, at least, the change of creative environment did Carole some good. First and foremost, we gotta give some credit to the guitar players — particularly Robert McEntee and Mark Hallman (I am not sure how much credit should be actually given to Rick Evers, who is co-credited on three songs with Carole and also listed as a guitar player). On two of the album's most uptempo numbers, the guitars kick up a real storm. ʽYou're The Oneʼ is a dark and melancholic song, a little reminiscent of Fleetwood Mac's ʽYou Make Loving Funʼ in terms of tempo, basic rhythmic structure, and the impact that the sharp, intrusive guitar licks make on the rest of the song — but this one's more disturbing and, at times, even more desperate, in strange contrast with Carole's former peace of mind. The other number is ʽGod Only Knowsʼ — not a cover of the Beach Boys song, but a completely different and, this time, bouncy and uplifting song, with a ʽRunawayʼ-ish "I wonder..." hook.

Both songs are decent as far as composing goes, but the real reason I am singling them out is that both are extended with an unusually long (for Carole) coda, where the guitarists are given complete freedom, and they are not afraid to use it. On ʽYou're The Oneʼ, the two players battle each other, contrasting a sharp, shrill tone with one muffled by a talkbox effect; and on ʽGod Only Knowsʼ, one of the soloists (no idea who exactly) delivers a fluent, super-melodic blues-pop solo that Dickey Betts might have envied. Really, this marks a first — never before did Carole allow her supporting players to carry on with their guitar solos for so long, and she couldn't have chosen a better opportunity to start: the electric guitar on both these songs is as perfect a companion for her and her piano as the sax solo was on ʽJazzmanʼ.

As for the less guitar-dependent songs, I'd say that the title track is quite lovely, despite the unnecessary overreliance on synthesizers, and gets its programmatic message ("simple things mean a lot to me") across quite convincingly. Little else stands out (although, other than the abys­mal ʽHard Rock Cafeʼ, little else is openly irritating), until she gets to the very end and delivers one of the most ambitious songs she ever wrote: ʽOneʼ is a micro-macro-cosmic anthem that somehow manages, over a measly five minutes, to touch upon everything, using the magic num­ber as a starting point — a song about being "one" as a person, as a family unit, and as "one" with the universe, and about all the emotions that go with it, from joy and amazement to bewilder­ment and confusion (the pertinent refrain is "what am I gonna do?... what am I gonna do?..") Perhaps it is far from her best in sheer melodic terms (although I really like the structural games she plays with the bridge section, going from super-quiet "I am one" to super-loud "WE ARE ONE!"), but it really pays off to see her combine deep personal honesty and vulnerability with sonic bombast in this manner, and in any case, it's a fresh approach to finalizing the album, after three nice, but generic-predictable straightforwardly optimistic codas in a row — this time, the ending is more ambiguous and intriguing.

Bottomline is, the critics were wrong: in a world that does not necessarily expect each and every one of its master songwriters to adapt to new trends, but allows them to follow their own path of spiritual and artistic evolution, Simple Things should have been as welcome as any other B-level Carole King album, and it does have more high points than either Rhymes & Reasons or Thoroughbred, to name but a couple of truly middle-of-the-road albums for her. I am not sure that three very good songs (two of them mostly because of the guitar work), one awful song, and 5-6 unremarkable tunes are really worthy of a thumbs up, but don't let me discourage you from trying the record out anyway — if you see it in a corner, give it a spin, just to be assured that as late as 1977, Carole King did not betray and abandon her muse, even if she still left her going around somewhat underfed and unwashed behind the ears.

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