Carole King was ready for a fresh start in 1977. She had recently split from manager/producer Lou Adler’s Ode Records, the label with which she had signed back in 1968 as the lead singer of The City. It was, of course, at Ode where King triumphed with Tapestry, and over the years introduced a parade of memorable songs like “It’s Too Late,” “So Far Away,” You’ve Got a Friend,” “Sweet Seasons,” “Been to Canaan” and “Jazzman.” Yet the four albums recorded by King at Capitol between 1977 and 1980 have been overlooked since their original releases; all but one had never been domestically released on compact disc. Through her own Rockingale Records label and Concord Music Group, King has now reissued Simple Things (RKG 33601-02), Welcome Home (RKG-33597-02), Touch the Sky (RKG-33599-02) and Pearls: Songs of Goffin and King (RKG-33603-02) as The Carole King Collection. This quartet fills in a major gap in King’s catalogue, and there’s plenty to rediscover!
King’s band Navarro took the place of her Ode-era stalwarts like Danny “Kootch” Kortchmar, Russ Kunkel, Leland Sklar and second husband Charles Larkey. But despite the fine musicianship of Navarro (guitarists Rob McEntee and Mark Hallman, bassist Rob Galloway, drummer Michael Wooten, percussionist Miguel Rivera and flutist/saxophonist Richard Hardy), the sound of Simple Things doesn’t stray too far from King’s stylistic signature. The title track “Simple Things,” co-written with King’s third husband, Rick Evers, features that same warm acoustic sound, augmented with a subtle string arrangement. King embraced a “back to nature” outlook both in life and in song, relocating with Evers to his home state of Idaho: “Simple things mean a lot to me/Some things only children can see/Simple things, like horses running free/And easy acceptance of life.” In making this life change, King had discovered an answer to friend and collaborator James Taylor’s “Secret o’ Life.” She even concludes in song, “The secret of living is life.” The album begins with “Simple Things” and ends with a reprise of the same sentiments in “One”: “He is one, she is one/A tree is one, the earth is one, the universe is one/I am one, we are one.”
Evers was King’s only co-writer for the LP, with three songs to his credit; the remaining seven compositions were all from King’s pen alone. He also contributed guitar to a couple of songs, with King herself stepping from behind the piano to play guitar on “Hold On.” She’s in fantastic voice throughout the album, contributing strong vocals and harmonies to ballads like the beautiful, piano-driven “In the Name of Love” and “Time Alone.” Richard Hardy fills in for Tom Scott for the jazzy saxophone on “Labyrinth,” and the beguiling Latin rhythms of Ode hit “Corazon” get a new spin on one of the most memorable tracks off Simple Things, “Hard Rock Café” – no relation to the chain of restaurants founded in 1971! Elsewhere, King and Navarro credibly rock on “You’re the One Who Knows” and “God Only Knows,” although the latter pales in comparison to another, rather better-known song of the same name. It’s hard not to read into the lyrics of “To Know That I Love You,” on which King sounds blissful in love: “Over and over again, we light the flame/Rediscovering that we are the same/And I love you.” Evers joins her for a duet on this touching paean to a deeply felt romance. Simple Things may be the great lost album of King’s long career, with the title song, “Hard Rock Café” and “In the Name of Love” all able to stand alongside her most sterling accomplishments.
We continue after the jump!
Rick Evers also figures prominently on 1978’s Welcome Home, co-writing another three songs and pictured on the album artwork. Tragically, however, he succumbed to drug addiction before the album’s release, and the album is dedicated to his memory. Navarro returned, as well as King’s co-producer Norm Kinney, for another set of songs obviously close to the artist’s heart. “Sunbird” is the quintessential “Carole King” tune on the record, with piano, subtle woodwinds and guitar enhancing the gentle melody. Evers’ lyric is an impressionistic poem, though, lacking the directness of the best of Gerry Goffin, Toni Stern or King herself: “Starlight/Sunbird/The music inside us all/Touches everyone/Everyone listen for the call.” With Navarro on hand for rootsy backing, pastoral themes are central to the entire album, from “Morning Sun” (“It’s gonna be a golden day/Wings unfoldin’ day/Green trees, blue sky”) to two odes to the singer’s new Idaho home, “Everybody’s Got the Spirit” and “Welcome Home.” A freewheeling fairground atmosphere permeates the jaunty “Ride the Music,” one of the catchier songs here.
More unusual are two tracks that, at best, are missed opportunities. King and company pay homage to late-period Beatles, repaying the Fabs for their covers of such Goffin and King songs as “Chains” with the Evers/Navarro co-write “Venusian Diamond,” a pastiche that doesn’t really land (despite King’s having “added every Beatle lick we could think of,” in her own words). As far as Beatles tributes go, though, it can’t compare with those crafted by Jeff Lynne and Electric Light Orchestra during the same period. Even less inspired, though, is the too-on-the-nose “Disco Tech,” King’s foray into then-contemporary dance. Welcome Home was, alas, Carole King’s first album to miss the Top 20 since prior to Tapestry in 1971, falling from Simple Things’ peak of No. 17 to No. 104 on the Billboard album chart. (All of King’s post-Tapestry albums at Ode had made the Top 10, certified gold or platinum.)
For 1979’s Touch the Sky, King wrote every selection herself, but made the decision (with co-producer Mark Hallmann, replacing Norm Kinney) to play piano on only four of its ten tracks. Navarro was out, and another change of scenery was in; King chose to record the album in Austin, Texas, with members of Jerry Jeff Walker’s band. As a result, the album has a more restless character than either of its two Capitol predecessors but has a feel-good groove that’s hard to deny.
The opening salvo, “Time Gone By,” is the observation of a mature artist looking back, and also somewhat of a requiem for, and celebration of, past ideals: “I remember time gone by/When peace and hope and dreams were high/We followed inner visions and touched the sky/Now we who still believe won’t let them die.” There’s a subtle country influence on the lovely “Dreamlike I Wander” and jaunty “Walk with Me (I’ll Be Your Companion),” and a more pronounced one on “Passing of the Days.” But the best of these country-folk songs might be the yearning “You Still Want Her.” King is in strong voice on these new songs, and although her piano is especially missed, Touch the Sky is the expression of an artist spreading her wings in a new direction.
As the 1980s began, Carole King looked back to the 1960s for her final album of the era. Pearls: Songs of Goffin and King signaled a back-to-basics approach with the stark cover photo of King at a white piano; Goffin joins her at the piano for a jacket photo as well. This album functions as a newly-recorded “greatest hits,” and an opportunity for King to reclaim a number of songs she wrote but didn’t perform, as well as three performed with her early band The City. (Fellow City member and second husband Charles Larkey even appears on Pearls reprising bass duties.) Back in Austin, Texas with much of the same personnel as Touch the Sky (including Mark Hallmann, Reese Wynans, Miguel Rivera and Richard Hardy), King seems energized by this stroll down memory lane. Not that it’s all nostalgia, though. The big and brassy “Dancin’ with Tears in My Eyes” was a new Goffin and King composition, bringing their long partnership full circle. In addition, the arrangements are all-new, hinting at the shiny gloss of the new decade. Eighties icon Christopher Cross even drops by to contribute guitar to three songs!
The Pearls take on The Chiffons’ “One Fine Day” scored King her last radio hit to date, and features that indelible, piano-pounding riff intact along with some decidedly eighties drums. Those carefree teenage memories are also easily conjured up by a new “Loco-Motion” and “Chains,” introduced by The Cookies but famously covered by The Beatles. The new “Hey Girl” lacks the sweep and majesty of Freddie Scott’s original as well as its prominent backing vocals, but King emotively sings Goffin’s original lyric in one of her best vocal performances. “Oh No, Not My Baby” was later revisited by King on 2001’s Love Makes the World emphasizing just voice and piano, but the more produced version here, too, taps into the song’s painful core.
By the late 1960s, pop was ceding center stage to rock, and Goffin and King adapted with songs that were more impressionistic than their earliest triumphs. The beguiling “Snow Queen” and N’awlins funk-infused “Hi-De-Ho (That Old Sweet Roll),” both previously aired on The City’s Now That Everything’s Been Said album, are striking in their Pearls interpretations. “Snow Queen” is one of King’s most unusual songs; the darkly captivating waltz is also one of her most rewarding. Similarly, “Wasn’t Born to Follow” and “Goin’ Back,” both reinvented by The Byrds and the latter a fan favorite in Dusty Springfield’s gripping rendition, captured the zeitgeist as intensely personal declarations that paved the way for the confessional nature of Tapestry. Banjo is front and center on King’s “Wasn’t Born to Follow” and “Goin’ Back” remains appropriately epic.
Each CD replicates the original album sequence only, with no bonus tracks added. (Wouldn’t outtakes or alternates have been a nice addition?) Each album is packaged attractively enough, with a uniform “Carole King Collection” on the tray card. Unfortunately, no new liner notes have been provided to put these albums in perspective, though lyrics are reprinted and the booklet to Welcome Home offers King’s original track-by-track notes from the LP. Even more oddly, no remastering credits are given for any of the four albums, though the sound is consistent and fine.
Carole King departed Capitol following Pearls. After releasing a couple of largely unsuccessful albums on Atlantic, she sat most of the 1980s out, preferring to concentrate on family as well as political and environmental activism. 1989’s “comeback” City Streets, again on Capitol, reteamed her with Gerry Goffin as well as with John Bettis and Rudy Guess. Since then, she has somewhat unbelievably only recorded three studio albums, yet there’s not a day that Carole King isn’t audible in our lives, whether on television, the big screen or most especially the radio. And we’re all the richer for it. Eager as we are for new music from this living legend, the long-awaited reissue of these four albums is cause for celebration, indeed. You just might want to shout, Hi-de-hi-de-hi-de-ho!
All four albums are available tomorrow, February 28, from Rockingale Records and Concord Music Group.