Anyone who failed to follow up an album that had sold four million copies with a very similar album would have to be either a fool or Bob Dylan. Carole King is neither, and her new album Carole King Music, follows with gingerly tread in the footsteps of Tapestry. The spirit of her music remains warm and strong, her lyrics still carry personal messages of friendship and loyalty, and the same musicians are playing in back of her. Despite the similarity between the two albums, the songs on Carole King Music are not as immediately likable and the new album doesn’t have its predecessor’s sure, unified sense of style.
Carole King is the most naturally, unaffectedly black of our white pop stars — black in her phrasing, in the feeling of the songs she composes, and in her deep love of rhythm and blues. So it is fitting that she launches the album with “Brother, Brother,” a song that appears to be a response to Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On.” Carole evokes the musical feeling of Marvin’s song with bongos and a beseeching vocal. Marvin had sung “Brother, brother, there’s too many of you dying.” Now a white sister takes up the same “Brother, brother” refrain and adds her heartfelt assent: “You have always been so good to me/And though you didn’t always talk to me/There wasn’t much my lovin’ eyes could not see/And I don’t believe you need all your misery.” Whether Carole is speaking to some generalized conception of blacks in America or to one raceless individual, her lyric stands as beautiful.
“Brother, Brother,” the best song on the new album, is a perfect example of vintage King. The chord progression — characteristically neat, logical, compelling and unforgettable — marks it as a pop hit. The lyric, as usual, contains an urgent and complex message — a hint of frustration, some warm words of encouragement and a passionate avowal that “you know I love you like no other.” In her own songs (as opposed to those with lyrics by Gerry Goffin or Toni Stern), Carole invariably addresses a “you.” She is incapable of writing a song that is not to someone; it is because she writes from this personal impulse, not from a pop impulse, that her songs are so moving. This same urgency to reach out and reassure gives her voice its haunting, inimitable tug.
Beyond all this, “Brother, Brother” is unmistakably cast in the black idiom. Three other songs on the album could serve as deadly accurate Motown followups. One has no trouble hearing Smokey Robinson wrapping the raw silk of his voice around the exquisite first two bars of “Surely” — one of the most subtle, serpentine melodic lines Carole has ever written. The wonderful rhetoric of the lyric, inflated with dignity borrowed from Roberts’ Rules of Order (“Surely you know how I sta-hand on the issue of my loving you”) is worthy of Smokey’s “I Second the Emotion.” “Brighter” and “Growing Away from Me” could both have come from the Motown songwriting team of Ashford and Simpson and would have made perfect numbers for Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell.
All these King cuts have the pop soulfulness and the carefully plotted, almost visible musical structures of Motown hits. What they don’t have, unfortunately, is the Motown band handling the arrangements. For Carole’s band gives a lukewarm taste of pop and R&B arrangements (e.g. the guitar and celeste figures in the second half of “Growing”) without ever defining a meaningful style.
Which brings us to the main problem with the album — the weakness of the backup. Tapestry was adorned with dozens of subtle instrumental touches that emerged with repeated listenings and made the record more durable. (You never really notice the strings on “You’ve Got a Friend” until you’ve played the album five times.) But it was Carole’s muscular piano-playing, her talent for spreading out chords to achieve the grandest possible effect, and her instinct for syncopating her chord-pounding so that it highlighted her vocal phrasing — it was these things that trademarked Tapestry. Tapestry aimed for a minimal, intimate sound and sacrificed brilliance for a pleasingly consistent simplicity.
On the new album that intimate intent remains but the discipline is gone. Tapestry created the illusion of simplicity whereas much of the backup on Music is merely simple. The band (a group of Carole’s friends who Toured last year as Jo Mama) always seems to be jamming, making up the arrangements on the spot. Charles Larkey plays interesting, busy bass lines and Joel O’Brien is adequate on drums, but Danny Kootch supplies consistently lame guitar lines. Once again, Carole’s songs cry out for the work of a great session guitarist. In fact, the new album has a nice bottom but virtually no middle, since Carole’s piano has for some reason been pushed way into the background.
Throughout the album there are half-hearted gestures at orchestration, as if these versions were just sketches for an arranger who is waiting to do the thing up right. If the arrangements for Carole’s aforementioned black songs are token Motown, the arrangements for her anglo songs — the ones that sound either like hymns or show tunes — are often downright second-rate. Why dilute the powerful refrain of a lament called “It’s Going to Take Some Time” with a Muzak-like celeste, when it cries out for the power of Steinway? Why suddenly doff the hat to Burt Bacharach with some tepid, Bacharach-like horns in the middle of a bouncy road song called “Carry Your Load”? They were so busy putting in the horns that they forgot a drum part, which is what the song really needs.
Of course, there are some fine moments in there too — such as when Curtis Amy peps up a nice little show tune waltz called “Music” with a long and woolly tenor sax solo. But there are also whole songs that are disappointments — throwaways like “Sweet Seasons” and “Back to California.” And one of the lowest points on the record is the follow-up to “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow” — another Goffin-King classic, “Some Kind of Wonderful.” Carole gave the Shirelles some real competition in her version of “Will You,” but the Drifters’ crisp “Some Kind” has it all over Carole’s rendition, which is drenched in soupy background vocals.
I find that my second-favorite song on the album, one I listen to again and again, has the simplest arrangement. “Song of Long Ago,” in which Carole celebrates the ripening of accidental friendships, features Carole on piano over a spirited bongo and bass bottom, with James Taylor filling in a rich middle on his acoustic guitar. Suddenly Carole has complete control again. The piano punctuates her vocal phrasing, the vocal stands out, and once again we hear what an instinctively brilliant singer she is — a fact disguised by some of the other arrangements. When James weaves his voice with hers, it makes for a meaningful, touching duet, not just background filler.
Like Tapestry this album is rich in both emotion and melody, and in its almost encyclopedic view of friendship it surpasses most popular music. There is no question about the value of the content, only the validity of the style. Carole now has to choose between simplicity and complexity — between piano-cum-combo and a full scale orchestra. The middle ground where she is now standing isn’t good enough for her and the sooner she moves on the better. Meanwhile, “Brother, Brother,” “Song of Long Ago,” and “Surely” provide new evidence that Carole King continues to be one of the major individual talents in pop music today.