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Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Carole King: Thoroughbred


1) So Many Ways; 2) Daughter Of Light; 3) High Out Of Time; 4) Only Love Is Real; 5) There's A Space Between Us; 6) I'd Like To Know You Better; 7) We All Have To Be Alone; 8) Ambrosia; 9) Still Here Thinking Of You; 10) It's Gonna Work Out Fine.

The end of an era: Carole's last album for Ode Records, last album produced by Lou Adler and the last one to reflect precisely the same old, sunnily conservative production stylistics, associated with Carole's house band (Kortchmar et al.), as well as Crosby & Nash (both of whom appear here as background vocalists), James Taylor (who also appears here as background vocalist), and riding a thoroughbred horse on the beach without a care in the world. Which does not mean that there actually were no cares in the world — husband Charles Larkey, woe and alas, is no longer credited as the resident bass player (replaced by Leland Sklar), because of domestic troubles that were tearing the house apart.

Instead, however, of going the easy way and converting domestic problems into tempestuous art, Carole went the hard way and preferred to make another sunny album — this was, after all, what the people expected of her. And now that she was no longer bound by the catchiness parameter (grown-ups can stand hookless, after all — you can't fool the kids, but you can work your way around the grown-ups), the result, once again, is disappointing. There is virtually nothing about Thoroughbred, bar Carole's usual ability to come across as friendly and likeable, to make it stand out — like Rhymes & Reasons, this is just an okay collection of mediocre ballads and smooth, formulaic pop-rockers.

"So many ways, so many ways to show you love someone" — a promising start, perhaps, but just one question: where are these many ways? The only way I hear is a piano ballad that rides the same chords we have already heard a hundred times, and the worst way possible to present it, when the transition from verse to chorus is marked only by a surge in volume, nothing else. And even worse than that, there are signs of fakery aboard: on the closing number, ʽIt's Gonna Work Out Fineʼ, she sings: "We've been hurting each other through a hard time / And it's a mighty good feeling to know it's gonna work out fine" — the entire song rings as untrue as the combination of these two lines: if you've really been hurting each other, how the heck do you even begin to get the feeling that "it's gonna work out fine" (and it really won't)? She tries hard — yes, she even delays the resolution of the second line, turning it into a climactic outburst, with some heavy artil­lery thrown in in the form of an uplifting brass riff. It does not help: the song is formally positive, but hardly the strong uplifting jolt that is needed to convince the listener.

Of all the songs here, I can vouch safely only for one — ʽAmbrosiaʼ, with lyrics by Dave Palmer, has a certain stately majesty, coupled with melancholy and nostalgia. There's nothing particularly outstanding about its melody, but there's a sort of mix between gospel-soul and country-pop here that tugs at heartstrings which none of the other songs manage to irritate. Repeated listens show that the whole thing is not hopeless (there are at least some attempts to produce memorable pop phrasing on numbers like ʽDaughter Of Lightʼ and ʽWe All Have To Be Aloneʼ), but most likely, by the time you get used to the very subtle nuances that distinguish these tunes from one another, you will already have completely lost interest. Yes, ʽHigh Out Of Timeʼ does sound a lot like Crosby & Nash, not the least because Crosby & Nash sing background vocals, but in basic musi­cal terms this is a non-entity — like a deconstructed ʽLong And Winding Roadʼ, devoid of its genius musical decisions and turned into slow background balladry muzak. And it's even more painful to listen to something like ʽOnly Love Is Realʼ start out with almost the same melody and atmosphere as ʽIt's Too Lateʼ, only to realize a few bars later that it has none of that awesome contrast between the ominous verse and the angry-sad chorus.

In short, while not an embarrassing disaster, Thoroughbred is a serious disappointment after the previous two records: Wrap Around Joy had given us a promising transformation into a jazz-pop hookmeister (even with a few glam elements thrown in for good measure), Really Rosie proved once and for all that «inborn pop instinct» is a reality that requires at least a lobotomy to go away completely, but with this album, she once again tried to put «substance» before «form», and, honestly, Carole King is not the deepest or the most unusual thinking artist in existence, so her falling back on the thrice recycled formula of Tapestry was doomed from the start. The album did chart for a while, but the formula had clearly run out of gas, as, for that matter, did almost the entire sunny Californian style by the end of 1975. And even if the record is still much better than Carole's post-Ode output on the average, I do not see myself revisiting it any time in the future — cut out ʽAmbrosiaʼ, perhaps, and leave the rest of this «thoroughbred»'s carcass to the dogs, with a decisive thumbs down.

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