Carole King: Simple Things / Welcome Home / Touch the Sky / Pearls
Reissued for the first time on CD, these albums propose the possibility that we should reconsider them as lost King classics. But these aren't forgotten gems -- they are lesser works.
Carole King is one of the great living pop songwriters. Whether her brand of pop is your thing or not, you can't deny someone who has written so many timeless songs over a 40-plus year career in music. Her songs may have been famous before she was, but her second album, Tapestry, is a singer-songwriter classic, and it was followed in the early '70s by solid albums like Music and Rhymes and Reasons. Now, though, King has teamed her own label, Rockingale, up with Ryko to reissue her late '70s work on compact disc for the first time. The discs are true to the original release -- artwork is intact, with full lyric sheets, and no bonus tracks -- and they propose the possibility that we should reconsider these albums as part of the necessary King canon.
These aren't records that have faded from memory with time. 1977's Simple Things, her first album for Capitol Records, was the last of her albums in the '70s to go gold and the first album since Tapestry broke to not make the top 10. The other reissues here that followed -- 1978's Welcome Home, 1979's Touch the Sky, and 1980's Pearls: Songs of Goffin and King -- fared even worse on the charts. As it turns out, though, this isn't because they were overlooked. The late '70s, as represented by these albums, shows King getting away from her talents, overbuilding compositions around underwritten songs. These aren't forgotten gems. For the most part, they are lesser works.
Simple Things comes the closest to approximating King's songwriting skill. The thumping "Hard Rock Café" was a hit for her with good enough reason since it stands out among the rest here, warming her percussive piano with guitars and horn fills. The ballads "In the Name of Love" and "Time Alone" are solid turns, focusing on King's voice and piano more clearly than the rest of the record. And though songs are often overdone -- the title track is particularly overstuffed with schmaltzy layers -- the melodies are sweet enough, if not as distinct as her previous work. The album sounds like the work of a performer in transition, finding the limits of her previous sound and, albeit in an overproduced way, trying to push into something different.
Unfortunately, the next two albums showed King coming off the rails rather than finding a new path. King made Welcome Home with her third husband, Rick Evers, who died of a heroin overdose after the album was recorded (but before its May 1978 release). Together the two find a few decent moments in the pastoral roll of "Morning Sun" and the rollicking countrified stomp of "Main Street Saturday Night". Mostly, though, the album is a mess. None of it sounds much like King's music and more like half-cooked musical borrowing. "Venusian Diamond" and "Disco Tech" are particularly embarrassing. The former rips off the psychedelic side of the Beatles, while the latter is a terrible attempt at dance music where the title term is for an imaginary school, as in "Disco Tech: let me be your teacher." It's a sad sound from the woman who gave us "So Far Away". So the mix of bad experiments and middling more-of-the-same -- check "Sunbird" or "Everybody's Got the Spirit", which sounds quite a bit like "Santa Claus is Coming to Town" -- makes for a recording low in King's career.
She couldn't rise from that low on Touch the Sky. Despite enlisting Jerry Jeff Walker's impressive backing band, King sounds entirely lost on this record. She only plays piano on three full tracks -- including the album's only highlight, "You Still Want Her" -- and the rest of this feels like slick, anonymous country-rock. From the dry bass and shiny twang of guitars on "Move Lightly" to the saccharin glide of "Passing of the Days", shifting into the country tradition does little for King's songwriting. "We trade our money for magic words/ Like Dumbo flying high in the nightly show," she sings at one point, resorting to cartoon elephants as her most evocative imagery. For someone who had once made such insightful songs, the tunes that paint these records -- and Touch the Sky in particular -- sound awfully naïve, focusing on some formless joy -- on keeping your "travel bright and cheery" so that as a result the songs have little at stake.
The best of these reissues is Pearls: Songs of Goffin and King, which was actually released in 1980. Of course, considering it's a collection of reworked versions of her most famous songs, there's no real surprise this one stands out. With the exception of "Dancin' With Tears in My Eyes" -- a great new song for King at the time -- the rest of the record revisits hits like "One Fine Day" and "The Loco-Motion" and delivers them with a surprising zeal. The production is sharp but subtle, far subtler than any of the other reissues here, and King brings a vitality to these performances. "One Fine Day" is particularly sharp, and her versions of songs made famous by the Byrds -- "Wasn't Born to Follow" and "Goin' Back" -- are excellent, nailing the lush country vibe that was botched so badly on Touch the Sky.
Still, despite the quality of Pearls, it still sounds like an artist in retreat, falling back on the good stuff after floundering for so long. It had been nearly five years since she had put out a good record, so it's nice to hear her in fine form on this record, but it also shows just how far she drifted in the latter half of the '70s considering the only way to reclaim relevance was to re-record the songs that gave her that relevance in the first place. Carole King has an established legend in pop music, one that is strong enough and filled with enough mega-hits that it's not likely to be tarnished. People will keep listening to her best work, and people will still cover her songs over and over again. Her legacy is still intact, but these reissues don't do it any favors.