Nine of the ten cuts on Pearls — Songs of Goffin and King are rerecordings of oldies, and they represent Carole King’s implicit acknowledgment that her songwriting talent has failed in recent years. There’s no shame in that admission, however, considering how many classics King and her longtime partner, Gerry Goffin, have contributed to the pop-music hall of fame. And it’s a relief to have a new Carole King album filled with material that’s good. Her solo career actually peaked in 1972 with Rhymes and Reasons, and her LPs since then have steadily declined in quality, even while Tapestry (1971) continued to rack up record-breaking sales.
Still, Pearls isn’t the comeback I’d anticipated. There’s an odd indifference — perhaps it’s melancholy — in King’s replays of chestnuts like “Locomotion,” “Oh No Not My Baby” and “Goin’ Back.” These tunes lack the definitive touch or the first-time-out exuberance that characterized similar remakes on Writer: Carole King and Tapestry — or, for that matter,” Dancin’ with Tears in My Eyes,” Pearls‘ one new number. This composition — a catchy throwback to King’s Shirelles days and a great improvement over her recent psychobabbling — is the current album’s most lavishly produced track, and that leads to another slight disappointment: the oldies here are done almost austerely with little more than piano and voice, like demos from the Great Masters. Though the a cappella intro to “Chains” and the speedy tempo and shooby-dooby-doo-wahs in “One Fine Day” are fun, the clattery, kitschy arrangements of yore are missed.
Interestingly, Pearls‘ best cuts are those least associated with Carole King. Besides “Dancin’ with Tears in My Eyes,” there’s “Snow Queen” (which King first recorded in 1968 with her trio, the City), now redelivered in a nicely streamlined, jazz-propelled version. The biggest surprise is “Hey Girl.” This old Freddie Scott hit is a strange choice, given the lyric’s gender specifications, but King gives it a beautifully rough, near-torchy treatment. Her passionate performance is reminiscent of Linda Ronstadt’s version of “Hurt So Bad” — it climaxes in long notes of rage mixed with desperation — but, to these ears, King’s is the more emotionally convincing and aesthetically pleasing.
Of course, doing an LP like Pearls presents Carole King with a new problem. It brings her career full circle (as did her first solo effort, Writer), yet it also raises the question: where does she go from here? Judging from the burned-out quality of the records immediately preceding Pearls, that question is pretty scary.