Thursday, November 15, 2012

Music From A Master, Remastered, Represented And Worth A Listen: Carole King’s A Natural Woman - The Ode Collection 1968 - 1976

The Good: Great vocals, Decent music, LYRICS!
The Bad: The sound gets repetitive
The Basics: A classic American singer-songwriter presents her greatest album with a slew of other important singles from around the same period in her life.

Back in the day, well before my time, musical artists told stories and they entertained with music that the listener could understand. At the forefront of the (mostly) uplifting singer-songwriters of the 1960s and 70s were such artists as James Taylor, Joni Mitchell, and Carole King. Half the standards on today's "Lite" music stations are the greats of classic pop-rock-folk artists who defined the sound of the generation. When Lauryn Hill was nominated for a slew of Grammies for her work The Miseducation Of Lauryn Hill, every critic in the know said that Hill had the best chance of tying of breaking Carole King's record for Grammy Awards received for her album Tapestry. I think it says quite a bit about the state of the industry when it took over a quarter decade for another female artist to even approach that level of greatness as respected by mass culture - and to be honest, Hill isn't it; despite the critical acclaim of The Miseducation Of Lauryn Hill and the awards it won, it never had the mass culture (i.e. widespread airplay) appeal or success of Carole King's Tapestry.

And one need only listen to a few tracks on A Natural Woman - The Ode Collection 1968 - 1976 to understand exactly what effect Carole King has had on popular culture in the United States. Almost all of the songs on the first disc are instantly recognizable, from "Hi-De-Ho" to "Up On The Roof," "I Feel The Earth Move," "So Far Away," and "It's Too Late" to "(You Make me Feel Like) A Natural Woman." Heck, Gilmore Girls uses Carole King's "Where You Lead" as its theme song!

This two-disc collection is an essential piece of American music history. Carole King's lyrics are empowering, liberating and/or profoundly sad, evoking strong emotions in the listener. She has the ability to tap into the deep insecurities that came with the Sexual Revolution in a way that is neither needy, reactionary nor inarticulate. For example, when she slowly sings, "Will You Love Me Tomorrow?," the lyrics are wrenching and passionate, ". . . You say that I'm the only one / But will my heart be broken / When the night meets the morning sun?" She's brilliant. And unlike a number of today's popular "artists," King's lyrics are easily understood and universal in themes and dialect. She speaks with one of the most expressive mainstream voices of any time.

And part of what makes the voice of her writing so impressive and powerful is King's voice while singing. Carole King has an amazing voice and she is able to go from sad ballads like "Will You Love Me Tomorrow?" to up-tempo storytelling with songs like "Smackwater Jack" and all throughout her voice is understandable and her singing is beautiful.

Carole King's voice lacks production that defines today's music experience far too often. In simplest terms, the voice the listener hears is HER voice, not a computer reconstruction, not a reverb-enhanced facsimile. King sings. It's that simple. She sings beautifully and with clarity that is impressive for some of the complex lyrics she sings. And she keeps it interesting, even. So, while Tapestry is an ode to life that is dense and moving, on disc two, she has a playful "Alligators All Around," an alphabet song that is just plain fun.

As far as the music goes, Carole King's sound is easy to define. This is a woman at a piano. She sits at her piano and croons out classic songs. It's not terribly complicated musically, though several of her tracks have recognizable and hummable melodies.

But therein lies the problem with A Natural Woman. Despite the lyrical and vocal strength of Carole King, the music that she plays is severely limited in sound. Listening to the two discs back to back captures well the artist in that period, but it does her no justice as far as illustrating any sense of growth. I suppose that that is not necessary, but what is important is the ability of a musical artist to keep the audience listening and engaged. With songs that sound alike or so simple in terms of almost every track is King at her piano (often without accompaniment) it fails to keep the listener engaged over several listens (at least in a row).

Honestly, this is probably worthy of a perfect rating, with my critique of her repetitive sound being swept under the rug as nitpicky, but I just rate it a 10. What I will say is that this is a classic collection of truly great musical storytelling and I would highly recommend it for anyone. I would recommend it enthusiastically over simply getting Tapestry (all of Tapestry is contained on this two-disc set!).

It's almost impossible to say what the best and worst songs are in a collection as solid as this, but I'll go with the best tracks are the heartwrenchingly honest "Will You Love Me Tomorrow?" (Disc 1) and the silly but fun "Alligators All Around" (Disc 2) and the weakest tracks being the somewhat banal, wandering "Brother, Brother" (Disc 1) and somewhat produced "Been To Canaan" (Disc 2), which even I have to admit is beautifully sung.

For other articulate singer-songwriters, be sure to check out my reviews of:
The Crossroad - Sophie B. Hawkins
In The Time Of Gods - Dar Williams
Storm - Heather Nova


For other music reviews, please check out my Music Review Index Page for an organized, alphabetical, listing of all of the music reviews I have written.

© 2012, 2007 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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