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In Rotation: Carole King's 'The Legendary Demos'

May 4, 2012 |  6:54 am

In Rotation: Carole King's "The Legendary Demos." A series in Sunday Calendar about what Times writers and contributors are listening to right now...

Carole King

This post has been corrected. See below for details. 

Carole King, “The Legendary Demos” (Rockingale/Hear Music)

The songs live within the minds of most Americans over 30, entangled among the neurons like morning glory: “You’ve Got a Friend,” “Pleasant Valley Sunday,” “Tapestry,” “Take Good Care of My Baby,” “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman,” and dozens others that Carole King wrote in the 1960s and ‘70s either alone or with her writing partner (and one-time husband) Gerry Goffin.

But no matter how often we’ve heard them, most have never been as exquisitely and simply experienced as on “The Legendary Demos,” which collects King’s original versions of these songs.

The set consists of thirteen works recorded from 1962, when she was working as a writer in New York’s songwriting epicenter the Brill Building, through 1971, after she’d divorced Goffin and moved to Laurel Canyon. The tracks on “The Legendary Demos” have been long coveted by collectors and King fans, and it’s easy to hear why. Though created as demo records and not intended for release, the documents contain some of King’s most casually elegant performances.

Take “Pleasant Valley Sunday,” which starts the set and is best known for the Monkees’ 1967 Beatles-esque wind-sprint. A sunshiny song about the pleasures and perils of suburban New Jersey life, King’s 1966 demo is a glimpse from an entirely different perspective. It’s the same song, but in two-and-a-half minutes she delivers more than a sketch: it’s a full band rendition in which King accompanies herself on backing vocals, singing clearly about the souls inhabiting suburbia.

Other demos are more sparse, and as a result the lyrics take centerstage and offer evidence of a master wordsmith. “Way Over Yonder,” a shining moment on King’s 1973 album “Tapestry,” could be about relocating to Los Angeles from New York – or about moving from this life into the great beyond. Here, King does it as a piano ballad with no accompaniment, making its seamless, solid construction is all the more evident.

Aretha Franklin’s version of “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” may be the platonic ideal of the song, but King on “Demos” offers a blueprint nearly as overwhelming: Just her, a piano, and a female chorus. The lush string arrangements on Franklin’s rendition add beauty, but here, little keyboard runs suggest grandness with a few flicks of the fingers.

The release concludes with “You’ve Got a Friend,” featured on “Tapestry” but turned into a classic by James Taylor in 1971. Her demo of the song from ‘70 is similar to her released version, but is offered minus the echoed wetness of “Tapestry.” Rather, there’s an intimacy here – the microphone seems pushed closely against her lips, and it feels like she’s alone in a parlour with a piano talking to someone she cares deeply about.

Like much of “The Legendary Demos,” King sings as though we’re hearing a private conversation, which only further confirms their place as some of the great American songs of the era.

Updated: The original version of this post incorrectly identified the inspiration for "Pleasant Valley Sunday." Its lyrics were inspired by suburban New Jersey, not, as originally written, about the San Fernando Valley. We have changed the text accordingly. 


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-– Randall Roberts @liledit

Photo: Carole King in the 1960s. Credit: Courtesy Concord Music Group