If you are prone to scouting Woolworth’s 89¢ record sales, you may someday come across a remaindered early Sixties minor masterpiece called The Simon Sisters (Kapp KS-3359). It’s well worth buying. Lucy and Carly Simon had clear, almost identical madrigal club voices which they applied to folk songs, producing exquisite harmonies. After that first album, nothing was hear of the Simons except for a feeble rumor that Albert Grossman was planning to market Carly, the younger sister, as the Female Dylan. Then silence until the much-belated arrival of Carly Simon, a very beautiful, if very different, album.
This time, Carly sings mostly songs she has composed herself ballads, narrative songs, even a soft-shoe number. Her style is difficult to pin down. She is a Sarah Lawrence graduate and she unabashedly writes like one. Much more than Randy Newman, who was once carelessly labelled “the king of the suburban blues,” Carly writes songs dedicated to the proposition that the rich, the wellborn and the college-educated often find themselves in the highest dues-playing brackets. Some of the songs on this album sound like Updike or Salinger short stories set to music.
These are personal songs written by a woman caught in a classic post-graduation bind: she has a fierce desire for independence; at the same time, frightened of loneliness, she longs for the security of marriage. In song after song, she gives in and opts for marriage, sometimes to find that her man has lost patience and split.
Take, for instance, “That’s The Way I’ve Always Heard It Should Be,” a song Carly wrote with Esquire film critic Jacob Brackman. To her suitor, Carly sings of the couples who “cling and claw and drown in love’s debris,” and objects, “But soon you’ll cage me on your shelf.” Finally, however, she concedes, softly and sweetly, “Well, OK… You want to marry me, we’ll marry.”
A country singer like Tracy Nelson would happily settle for the man. In her songs, she nearly always loses him and expresses the intense sense of loss. The loneliness of the sophisticated city girl in Carly’s songs is mitigated by a career, travel, college friends (all these things are alluded to in the lyrics) — and no doubt, by a psychotherapist or two. But what this personna lacks in intensity, she makes up for in complexity. The woman in these songs is at once passionately romantic and cynically realistic.
Carly’s voice perfectly matches her material. She can sing with Tracy’s smokiness or Grace Slick’s beefiness, as the occasion demands. This superbly controlled voice is complemented by deft arrangements. The instrumentation is mid-Beatles basic soft rock combo plus cello and occasional harpsichord or pedal steel. The arrangements are slick, using such Bacharachesque devices as offbeat chordal shifts, but the slickness gives the album a certain New York cachet.
When she sings, Carly sticks to the melodies, and her melodies are worth sticking to. Her phrasing does justice to her excellent lyrics, and to the fine songs by Mark Lingman and Brackman and Fred Gardner. There is only one clinker — the strange, White Rabbity, mantric number that ends the album.
The music, then, is lovely, but what makes this record exceptional is its subject matter. Like very few recent records, it strikes close to a lot of middle class homes.