Pearls / Touch the Sky / Welcome Home / Simple Things
Rockingale Records / Concord Music
Once, when America was great, we built things on production lines. Automobiles, airplanes, movies, pop music, all had specialists that focused on a single aspect of the process, got it right, and got it done on schedule. In the music industry there were songwriters, composers, arrangers, singers, and DJs, all with well-defined roles. Carole King was one of the writers tucked in a microscopic office in the Brill Building with Neil Sedaka, Phil Spector, Leiber and Stoller, and a dozen other “names.” But Ms. King had aspirations and a voice, and soon she was singing and recording her own material, thus the singer/songwriter became the Next Big Thing. Her second album, 1971’s Tapestry blasted her to a solid number one position and multi-platinum rock icon status. Her next five albums all placed in the Top 10, but she then began a gradual decline in popularity. Perhaps the public tired of her voice, maybe her best ideas were recorded, and maybe even the nasty punk screamers took the public’s eye. Let’s take a look at four lesser known mid-career LP’s that Concord and Rockingale (King’s own label) has reissued.
Simple Things went gold, and while it didn’t spawn a major hit, there were two charting singles: “Simple Things” and “Hard Rock Cafe.” The first offers a harder backing sound reminiscent of the Eagles, and the second leans toward a Latin beat with that Jimmy Buffet beach slacker groove. There’s more good stuff here, “In the Name of Love” is a gentle ballad with powerful vocals, and “You’re the One Who Knows” mixes a generic ’70s power-pop backing with great lyrics. There’s a “Me, Too” aura here; King is chasing the stadium rockers sound of 1977.
Welcome Home debuted the very next year and King’s style hadn’t changed. Songs start with either a simple folk melody on piano or guitar, or a medium hard rock guitar influence. In either case they move quickly back to what King does best: pop love ballads that emphasize her vocal skills. While she’s clearly a gifted singer, there’s always a slight edge in her voice that telegraphs “pop rock” while excluding opera or classic show tunes. She takes a shot at a sitar-driven psychedelic number with “Venusian Diamond” but it feels forced and slightly wrong, as does “Disco Tech” with its generic funk bass line. The minor hit “Morning Sun” has a pleasant non-threatening vibe and a backing flute, but you can sense King is grasping, not sure if she should stick to her roots or try the Linda Ronstadt strategy of constantly chasing the next trend.
By Touch the Sky, chart success had permanently fled. This album charted at 104 and no singles caught the public’s ear. King was no longer weakly chasing the crowd, but she clearly had a loyal fan base and this album turns to please this core of record buyers. “Time Gone By” and “Move Lightly” sound like classics, and they are centered in her emotional and vocal sweet spot. Her vocals remain a constant and by now I can identify her voice on a Greatest Mix radio station in no more than three words. The styles are safe — the county sound for “Good Mountain People,” ballads for heartbreaker “You Still Want Her,” and early New Age mysticism for “Eagle.” Solid and enjoyable, Touch the Sky seems to step back from seeking a hit and Ms. King accepts her new lesser light status in the business.
The last disc, Pearls, reprises songs she co-wrote with Gerry Goffin. While not exactly a Greatest Hits collection, you will recognize all of these tracks even if they wander off the original style. Listen for the whitest “Do the Locomotion” ever recorded, the bouncy and rocking “One Fine Day” and some interesting vocal harmony on “Chains.” We are now in the relaxed phase of a mega star’s career — hits aren’t necessary to prove anything, but there is still a joy in making and recording music that you can share with those who appreciate your efforts. King remains a force in music, and one of the writing geniuses of the century.