The finest children's album ever made

Of three new Carole King reissues, it's "Really Rosie" -- a "Tapestry" for the under-10 set -- that stands out.

Topics: Writers and Writing, Music,

Carole King spent the ’60s writing songs for kids. Her songwriting
team, with then-husband Gerry Goffin, had one perky hit after another:
“The Loco-Motion,” “Chains,” “I’m Into Something Good,” “Pleasant Valley
Sunday” and dozens of others. But with her newly reissued 1971 solo album
“Tapestry,” she made a huge formal leap. It was the first great adult pop
album: complicated, subtle, built on her subdued piano parts, lyrically
concerned with the way people who’ve been living for a while relate to each
other. King’s music matured, too, giving up the simplicity of bubble gum for
trickier, jazzier chords and letting her thin but mellow voice carry the
songs. And it hits the mark over and over, because she didn’t give up her
Brill Building sense of hooks great and small. “It’s Too Late” couldn’t be
more grown-up — a clear-eyed take on a relationship’s disintegration — but a
little bell motif candies up the chorus, like an old Crystals tune, and makes it stick.

In “Tapestry’s” masterstroke, King revisited two of the hits she
and Goffin had written years before, and pulled them into the grown-up
world with her voice and arrangements alone. The Shirelles’ 1961 version of
“Will You Love Me Tomorrow?” is the voice of a timid virgin wondering if
she’s kissing the right boy. King slows the song way down, opens up the
pain concealed in every word of it, and sings it like a woman who’s been
burned so many times she already knows the answer is no, but has to try
anyway: “Tell me now, and I won’t ask again.” Finally, there’s a
stripped-down, hushed version of “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman.” Aretha Franklin sang it as a secular gospel song, shouting to the world
about an almost unbearable joy that’s only incidentally sexual. King isn’t
anywhere near the singer Franklin is, and though she’s cool with gospel (see “Way Over Yonder”), she knows that’s not the way she can sell this
song. Instead, she makes it small and shockingly personal, a sweet confession for a lover’s ear.



(One major complaint about the reissue, besides the weird mastering job that sometimes frays King’s vocals into distortion: There are two bonus
tracks. Extra stuff is nice to have, but “Tapestry” ends with “A Natural Woman.” It just does. It’s not just a batch of songs; it’s a very specific 12-song cycle, and after it ends, you do not want to hear a decent but un-special outtake, and you especially don’t want to hear a live version of “Smackwater Jack,” which you just heard 10 minutes earlier, anyway.)

Every other record King made can’t help but be heard in the light of “Tapestry,” whose commercial heights she never scaled again. (That’s not
a knock; nobody did. This is an album that stayed on the Billboard chart
for almost six years straight.) It’d make a great fairy tale if “Tapestry” had
sprung full-blown as her first record after a decade’s apprenticeship as a
songwriter, spurred by her move to the West Coast, but that’s just not the case. First,
she formed a band called the City with “Tapestry” musicians Danny Kortchmar and
Charlie Larkey; they made a single album, “Now That Everything’s Been Said,” newly reissued
after 30 years out of print. It’s not a great record — the songs are mostly
half-formed and hookless (though “Wasn’t Born to Follow” and “That Old
Sweet Roll” went on to be covered by Dusty Springfield, the Byrds and
Blood, Sweat & Tears), and the sound aims at “Tapestry’s” L.A. cool but
keeps getting derailed by awkward flashes of rock ‘n’ roll ego and an irritatingly chintzy mix. As a historical artifact, it’s pretty
interesting, but it’s ultimately just a curio. King made one other not-quite-there-yet pre-”Tapestry” solo album, “Writer,” which is still in print as a budget-line disc.

Legacy has also released an expanded version of “Her Greatest Hits (Songs of Long Ago),” with two live tracks tacked on at the end — the extra
“Natural Woman” means that it now reproduces almost half of “Tapestry’s” track listing. The other tracks, though, reveal how her biggest success
shaped her aesthetic; she seems to have worked harder at moving away from
it than at reproducing it. What her later, weaker solo albums miss most is
that connection of speaker to listener: her exhortation to “Believe in
Humanity” is universal where it could be personal, and mushy because of it.
But King grew more engaged with soul music over time, and started
responding to it more directly. “Brother, Brother,” from her “Tapestry” follow-up, “Music” (released later in 1971), is more or less an answer song
to Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On”; and if the saxophone solo at the center of “Jazzman” sounds like something off “Saturday Night Live,” other songs are closer to what, say, Bill Withers and Billy Paul were doing in the
early ’70s than to James Taylor.

Four years after she reinvented bubble gum pop for adults, King pulled off the same trick in reverse: making adult pop for children. 1975′s
“Really Rosie,” the finest children’s album ever made, has been out of print for the entire CD era, which means a whole generation has missed out
on its charms; it’s the last of the new reissues, and it still sounds great. Written for the soundtrack of a TV special based on Maurice Sendak’s picture books, it’s essentially “Tapestry” for kids, a 12-song cycle about a little girl from Brooklyn with a grand imagination (hint: King and Sendak grew up in the same Brooklyn neighborhood). Sendak’s lyrics are deft and hilarious — “Dear Academy, take note/I should get the Oscar vote/If you don’t, I’ll bite your throat/Signing off now, quote unquote” — and he undersells the absurdity of his stories, which just makes them funnier. In
“Pierre,” a kid who says “I don’t care” to everything is eaten by a lion for his nonchalance; his parents shake the beast until Pierre falls out,
unharmed, suddenly caring a lot, and finally “the lion took him home to rest/And stayed on as a weekend guest.” “Alligators All Around” is a
flawlessly silly alphabet song; “Chicken Soup With Rice” is just flawlessly silly. King, God bless her, approaches these songs the same way as she dies “I Feel
the Earth Move” or “So Far Away” — they’ve got the same kinds of twisty melodies and flurries of minor chords, and she sings them with an intimacy
unlike any other children’s record, foregoing bold declarations for friendly murmurs and low-key teases. With the help of Sendak’s girl’s-eye view lyrics, the album crouches down a little to sing directly to kids instead of singing down to them — just as “Tapestry” stood up tall to sing straight to their parents.

Douglas Wolk is the author of "Reading Comics."

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