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Music Review: Carole King – Pearls: Songs of Goffin and King

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As part of a new series of Carole King re-issues, Pearls should command special attention. For one matter, this 1980 release has never been widely available on CD before. As the title implies, this collection is comprised of songs King co-wrote with former husband Gerry Goffin, many of which were hits for other performers long before King began her own recording career.

Back in 1980 and now in 2012, many listeners may be forgiven for feeling some of these tracks are essentially lushly produced demos in reverse. After all, some of the tracks are closely associated with the artists who put these songs on the charts. “The Loco-Motion,” for example, was a two-time hit for both Little Eva and Grand Funk Railroad. “Hey Girl” was recorded by the likes of Bobby Vee, The Righteous Brothers, Donnie Osmond, and George Benson. On the other hand, while The Chiffons made “One Fine Day” one of their signature songs, that didn’t stop King’s version from charting all over again in 1980.

Other songs weren’t necessarily big hits for other artists, but it’s hard to avoid some compare and contrasts with tunes like “Chains,” a track which The Beatles covered with no great distinction on their first album. On Pearls, King took the song back to her roots, that is becoming a one-woman doo-wop girl group. Maxine Brown had a hit in 1963 with “Oh No, Not My Baby,” which King again takes back to her early days, this time with a Gospel-flavored organ and piano set ballad. But on “Hi-De-Ho (That Old Sweet Roll),” which had been a stand-out David Clayton-Thomas belter on the third Blood, Sweat, and Tears album, King seems out of place. She sounds like a plaintiff white girl singing in a black church accompanied by a New Orleans funeral trumpet section.

During this period, most of King’s other recorded work was more typically of the folk/rock mode, as in “Wasn’t Born to Follow,” a song the Byrds had made a psychedelic contribution to the Easy Rider soundtrack. In King’s hands, the long, lyrical lines show a clear nod to what Bob Dylan had done to change popular songwriting (Supported by Mark Maniscalco on banjo, the song also demonstrates King’s ease in the relaxed genre of country/rock). Likewise, the closing number, “Goin’ Back,” is a reflective, nostalgic look back at lost innocence. And that seems a perfect coda to King’s re-invention of material on which her reputation had been built two decades before.

Most King fans are likely to point to specific songs as their favorite moments; mine is the unexpected delights of “Snow Queen,” a soulful, jazzy jam on piano and guitar. These same fans are likely to be unhappy that there are no liner notes, booklet, lyrics, any bonuses at all. Other than noting the original album was produced by King and guitarist Mark Hallman, listeners will need to check other sources to learn other musicians included Eric Johnson and Christopher Cross on guitars and another of King’s husbands, Charles Larkey, on bass.

Pearls isn’t Tapestry and it’s not indispensible King. However, it is a listenable and long overdue assembly of some first-class songs re-invented by their co-creator for a specific time and place. It’s an interesting experience to hear the ‘60s as re-imagined in a cozy 1980 studio and introduced yet again in that context thirty years later.

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About Wesley Britton