The Earth moved under Carole King
Carole King’s “Tapestry,” which has been rereleased in a deluxe CD package, is one of the biggest-selling and most honored albums of all time, but it’s 37 years old, so a few words of reintroduction may be necessary.
Indeed, a recent, mostly glowing consumer review of the album on a major commercial website begins, “You probably haven’t heard the name before, but I bet you already know quite a few of her tunes.”
For anyone who is hazy about King, here’s one easy way to think of “Tapestry”: It’s the 1970s equivalent of Norah Jones’ “Come Away With Me” -- only with better songs.
The collections have more in common than millions in sales and album of the year Grammy Awards. They are wonderfully classy and restrained works that broke from the main commercial trends of their day.
In King’s case, “Tapestry,” along with such other distinguished works as Neil Young’s “After the Gold Rush” and James Taylor’s “Sweet Baby James,” offered a calm, comforting tone after the social and musical turbulence of the late 1960s.
Like Young and Taylor, King tried to refocus attention on such classical values as friendship, loved ones and home. The key song, which Taylor later turned into a No. 1 hit, was aptly titled “You’ve Got a Friend.”
But comforting tones and songwriting excellence aren’t the whole story with “Tapestry.” King is a much better songwriter than singer, but producer Lou Adler framed King’s thin voice brilliantly with gentle, tasteful backing that turned her limitations into a strength. The result was a series of vocals every bit as warm and inviting as the themes.
Even after all these years, “Tapestry” sounds honest and inspiring. The bonus in the two-disc package is a series of live versions from the 1970s of all but one song on “Tapestry.” They feature just King’s voice and piano.
Adler, who also worked with the Mamas & the Papas, tells Harvey Kubernik in the liner notes that the understated mood of “Tapestry” was greatly influenced by his fondness for King’s original “demo” versions of the songs.
“What I was trying to do was re-create their feel by staying simple so that you could visualize Carole sitting there, playing piano and singing, so that it wasn’t ‘just a piano player,’ it was Carole,” he said.
The veteran music and film producer says the live recordings convey the feel of those original demos because it’s just King at the piano again. The only “Tapestry” song not on the second disc is “Where You Lead,” which she wasn’t playing live at the time. Though not better than the studio versions, the live renditions add to our understanding and appreciation of the “Tapestry” project.
“Tapestry: Legacy Edition”
The back story: King was only a few years older than Young and Taylor when “Tapestry” was released, but she seemed like an old-timer on the youth-conscious pop-rock scene. That’s because she had been co-writing hits for other artists since her teens, notably “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” for the Shirelles and “Take Good Care of My Baby” for Bobby Vee. With husband Gerry Goffin, she later wrote such exquisite hits as “Up on the Roof” for the Drifters.
Though she wrote only melodies in the beginning, she began experimenting more and more with lyrics. After her marriage ended, she moved to California, where she released a solo album, “Writer,” in 1970. That LP received good reviews, but sales were minimal. “Tapestry” was King’s second album, and it was a massive hit. More important, it, along with the ambitious works of Joni Mitchell, helped lay a blueprint for female singer-songwriters.
Despite her enormous presence in pop in the 1970s, King has not been nearly as active in recent years, either touring or recording, which is one reason she is less familiar these days to young pop fans than, say, Taylor.
The music: The opening “I Feel the Earth Move” is an upbeat track that feels at odds with the rest of the more mellow album until you pay attention to the lyrics, which celebrate the joys of finding that special love.
The next group of songs, including “So Far Away,” “It’s Too Late” and “Home Again,” is more typical of the quieter “Tapestry” tone. “It’s Too Late,” which won a Grammy for record of the year, showed that gentleness didn’t mean blandness. The song, co-written by Toni Stern, told about the breakup of a romance with unusual intimacy and feeling. Sample lines: “Stayed in bed all morning just to pass the time / There’s something wrong here, there can be no denying / One of us is changing, or maybe we just stopped trying.”
To round out the album, King recorded two of her old hits, including "(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman,” which was written with Goffin and Jerry Wexler and recorded by Aretha Franklin. The song ends the album on an especially winning note.
There’s no way King’s voice can compete with Franklin’s, but there’s an edge of triumph and optimism in it that underscores all that she accomplished in “Tapestry.”
Backtracking is a biweekly feature devoted to CD reissues and other historical pop items.