Graded on a Curve:
Carole King,
Tapestry

Carole King is a paradoxical figure; having begun her career as an assembly-line songwriter with then husband Gerry Goffin at the famed Brill Building, where the couple collaborated on a number of highly successful songs for other artists, she went on become an archetype of the sensitive singer-songwriter–that avatar of authenticity who wouldn’t be caught dead singing songs written in the musical world’s equivalent of an automotive factory.

King’s move from West Orange, NJ to Laurel Canyon in 1967 was more than just a geographical one; insofar as it symbolized her transformation from song craftsman for hire to soul-barer, it made King–along with the likes of James Taylor and Joni Mitchell–the perfect embodiment of the soul-searching Me Generation.

King’s turn toward self-expression was well in tune with the zeitgeist, as was proved by the supernatural success of her second solo album, 1971’s Tapestry. Every sensitive soul in America owned a copy, including the two spinster ladies–they were probably only in their late twenties–who ran the Catholic Youth Organization meetings I attended as a teen, that is until it finally struck me that (a) I wasn’t even Catholic, but was only there to woo my first love, and (b) could be having a much better time doing drugs.

How many nights did I listen to Tapestry while looking at the cover and thinking “Why is her hair so frizzy? Why isn’t she wearing shoes? And what is that goddamn cat’s problem?” And for a long time afterwards, having abandoned King and the school of genteel singer-songwriters in general for the electric thrills of David Bowie and Frank Zappa, I chuckled at my silly and naive thralldom to the mild comforts and gentile thrills of this snug and familiar quilt of an LP.

But when I hear these songs now, I understand why Tapestry went Diamond and spent like 53 years (okay, that may be an exaggeration) in the Billboard charts. Its best songs are standards, just as you’d expect from half of the songwriting team behind Don Kirshner’s Dimension Records. And King, while nobody’s idea of a conventionally great singer, is soulful as hell–a skill she most definitely didn’t learn at the feet of Kirshner.

In the early days of the singer-songwriter era, King was king; Taylor may have garnered more publicity, and Joni may have garnered more critical plaudits, but King easily outsold ‘em both. And the amazing thing is she did it while flaunting all of the conventions of the star-making machinery. Taylor at least looked like a star; King looked like who she was–the Jewish girl next door, daughter of a New York City firefighter, and a Brooklyn kid (she co-wrote the Drifters’ urban hymn “Up on the Roof”!) to her toes.

And that voice! In a contemporaneous review of Tapestry, The Village Voice’s Robert Christgau wrote that King “liberated” the female voice “from technical decorum” by insisting upon “being heard just as she is… with all the cracks and imperfections that implies.” King is no Joan Baez; one could almost describe her singing as homely. But King didn’t want to be Joan Baez: she was simply dead set on singing her songs her own damn self at long last, and what comes across sounds unprocessed–almost ragged at times, but always real.

They’re as deceptively plain as King’s face on the album cover, these songs. The arrangements are stripped down; hell, a couple of these songs could be demos. And therein lies King’s particular genius–she kept the songs simple, and let her extraordinarily ordinary voice and the songs themselves bear the weight.

Tapestry has a domesticated feel to it; its songs weren’t made to be heard from the concert stage, they were meant to be heard in the snug comfort of your living room. And as such they marked a retreat from the world; apropos of James Taylor, King said, “People got sick of the psychedelic cloud and wanted to get softer moods.” The same can be said of her and the homey songs on Tapestry; this is comfort music, chicken soup for the ears.

Tapestry includes three songs that date back to her partnership with Goffin; the rollicking “Smackwater Jack” could be a Jim Croce song; the piano ballad “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” is a slowed-down version of the song made famous by the Shirelles in 1960 (I’ll take their version any day); and (You Make Me Feel Like) a Natural Woman,” stands, of course, as one of Aretha’s finest moments, although King’s version, austere as it is, has its virtues.

King’s take on “You’ve Got a Friend” beats Sweet Baby’s James’ version hands down; the smarm factor is lower, King’s piano provides stark but powerful accompaniment, and while I could do without the strings, they don’t ruin things. I could do without the title cut; King’s life may be a tapestry, but the melody eludes me and the lyrics are lonely girl high school poetry at best.

My personal faves are all on the A Side; “I Feel the Earth” is almost as funky as “The Loco-Motion,” which Goffin-King wrote for Little Eva. “It’s Too Late” is a breakup song for the ages, set to a seductive and almost slinky beat. This is midnight music, and reminds me in a strange way of early Steely Dan, sans their perfectionists’ studio sheen and the Bard College English Major irony. It has the same jazzy feel, and when it comes to sentiment it’s not really that far away from “Reelin’ in the Years” or even “My Old School.” As for “So Far Away,” it might as well be a template for early seventies singer-songwriters–it’s as simple and universal an evocation of the loneliness distance brings as you’ll find anywhere.

I wish I could say the rest of Tapestry moves me as much, but it doesn’t; songs like the gospel-tinged “Way Over Yonder,” the homesick “Home Again,” and the quietly rocking “Where You Lead” are all okay, but I’m sure as hell not going to set myself on fire for any of them. With King humility is a virtue, but she’s self-effacing to a fault; some of these songs are so unprepossessing it’s easy to miss them altogether. Like wallflowers at a school dance, they seem terrified of being noticed.

And the same could be said for King herself. It comes as no surprise to me that she so often gets overlooked in histories of the early seventies, even by writers focusing on the singer-songwriter phenomenon. James Taylor fit the part perfectly; and Joni Mitchell, with her superior poetry, finger-popping North Beach-by-way-of Saskatoon boho leanings, and perfect cheekbones outshone Carole without even trying.

It goes without saying that your average rocker has no use for King whatsoever. I can count on two fingers, tops, the number of my friends who have a kind word to say about Ms. King. But I’m a spiritually evolved guy and in touch with my feminine side, and care not a whit if people think I’m uncool. And I hereby state for the record that when “I Feel the Earth Move” comes on the radio, it does. I feel the tremors.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A-

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  • Robert Sharpe

    Every girl I knew in the 1970s had this album in plain sight in her bedroom. While admittedly biased by her pedigree (the doo-wop band I perform with plays “Up on the Roof”) I’ve never stopped marveling at this album. (What does it take to get higher than A-, dude?) I will remember one early Saturday morning when my Dad and I had an unofficial moment, sitting silent as he drove me, in high school too young to drive, to work while “It’s Too Late” played on his car’s AM radio.

    • Michael Little

      Every girl I know owned a copy too. Except my sister, that is. I gave it an A- simply because there are songs on it I tend to skip over–every time. The title cut being the prime example. I almost always reserve the A for albums I want to play through nonstop because I love every single song. One miss might still merit an A. But a couple? I just can’t do it! But thanks, as always, for your thoughtful comments. I’m flattered you see fit to take the time to write them. Thanks, my friend!

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