Sunday, November 01, 2009

Kat's Korner: Carly Simon's warm benediction

Kat: Carly Simon's newly released album is entitled Never Been Gone after a track from 1979's Spy but it just as easily could be entitled Passages or any other title that connotes wisdom and maturity. If you're looking for a text equivalent to the album, think Emily Dickinson's "Because I Could Not Stop For Death."

Never Been Gone

Over 12 tracks, Carly sings of life, loss and the always ticking time. "The Right Thing To Do" (which Carly penned for 1973's No Secrets) kicks off the collection and it's difficult not bring her infamous ex into it and it's rather obvious Carly's brought him into it with an arrangement that's a bit more tuneful than his recordings but does approximate them. "Darling, I hold you in my arms forever, yes I do, And I'll love you more than just a little bit," she sings as the song winds down. "For the rest of my life," she adds. It can be read as "I refuse to let the bad of the relationship destroy the memories of the good" (a theme of the second track) or as "I am the widow and witness of our love affair."

From 1983's Hello Big Man, "It Happens Everyday" follows, the break up song whose heart has always been this passage:

But I don't regret that I loved you
How I loved you I will never forget
And in time I'll look back and remember
The boy that I knew when we first met

That's true of it's first recording in 1983 and true of the live version (on 1988's Greatest Hits Live) and true here. But whereas it used to be an emotional peak, it's now more of matter of fact. There's a lived in nature to the song. And as much as it's still about her, Carly's also looking out at "girls getting out of the cabs with their suitcases" to go live with a friend following a break up. In its latest incarnation, "It Happens Every Day" resembles the voice in Frank Musker and Dominic King's "You Have To Hurt" (from 1987's Coming Around Again) -- a song that was so perfect for Carly it was hard to believe she didn't write it. She certainly lived it and that's clear on track two.

On NBC's Today Show last week, Carly declared she could remember where she wrote every song on the album, where she was, what she was doing, what she wrote it on. And, over the years, she's described "Never Been Gone" as a song she wrote (with Jacob Brackman) following an unpleasant experience."

I'm bound for the island
The tide is with me
I think I can make it by dawn
Well, it's night on the ocean
And I'm going home
And it feels like I've never
I've never been gone

Carly's voice is out front on this version but it's a sing-along with multiple voices which gives a bar room chantey feel and also finds the warmer portions of the song and eases over the more dramatic parts. The unpleasant incident that was so key to the song (as well as writing it) is of less importance as the song's recast as a warm embrace of the known and familiar, of home.

Tori Amos has been known to break out "Boys In The Trees" when performing live and it's easy to see why when you listen to the 1978 original (from the Carly album of the same name): the discovery of the sensual, the discovery of your own power. For this version, Carly pretty much turns it into a duet with her daughter Sally Taylor and the rhythm supplied adds a great deal -- starting out like someone sneaking in well after dark with a tip-toe like quality and quickly moving to the pulsating. "And the silent understanding passing down, From daughter to daughter" becomes more prominent in this version and the song becomes more about the sisterhood.

"Let The River Run" features a more legato arrangement with every note in the chords being played individually which is a big step away from its rock roots. It also allows Carly not to be singing from outside the river but from within -- and if that escapes you, you haven't heard her new version. The songs you know have been re-imagined, not just re-arranged or re-worked.

And sometimes, that can be confusing. For example, I found track six -- Carly's most famous song -- a puzzler. I didn't get what was done to "You're So Vain" for the new guitar figure during the bulk of the verses until C.I. pointed out it was basically the first two notes from "walked in" ("You walked in, to the party . . .") and that the musical opening of the original (the strutting bass line heard under her whispered "son of a gun") was instead now being used for the bridge and the third verse. I'm missing the alleged point of view change in the song (alleged by one reviewer). If there's any change I can see, the singing only makes it more about the vanity of the former lover. It remains a send up of a lover ("You're so vain, I bet you think this song is about you") but the ending with some cowbell nonsense may get the point across that Carly was toying with the man and not crucifying him for those who missed that the first go around. Did someone say suspenders?

No secrets. None.

"You Belong To Me" (from 1978's Boys In The Trees and co-written with Michael McDonald) stands out primarily for a stronger vocal. There's nothing wrong with the original vocal, good enough to take the song into the top ten, but what once went was sung as a couple-threatening event is now something a more robust sounding Carly seems less shocked by and "you belong to me" becomes less of a plea and more of a reminder.

Track eight is the first new song on the album, "No Freedom," a duet with Peter Calo and passed down wisdom -- with big drums -- as evidenced by the opening, "Hey now, mama used to say, What's the use of spoiling a perfect day, Does a flower compromise it's glory, Wondering if it's going to rain?" The point of the song is in the chorus: "There ain't no freedom when you got a worryin' mind."

From "daughter to daughter" came to mind during "That's The Way I've Always Heard It Should Be." This version of the song Carly wrote with Jacob Brackman (and her first solo hit single) is heavy on the fingered chords in the mix. What I think of most when I listen to this version is several recent interviews where Carly's expressed surprise that anyone would have this played at their wedding. No, it's not a sentimental or sappy look. It remains a song about grappling with your own identity and the risks of losing you in a romantic merger. But it was an eyes-wide-open kind of statement, an I-know-the-risk-but-I'll-take-it which spoke to so many of us back when it was first released. The flutes on this -- as well as the string -- will be off putting to some -- and possibly make them think of the scene where Jessica Lange delivers food to a group of musicians practicing in Men Don't Leave. I'm sure that wasn't the intention but Lange's character declares in that film, "Heartbreak is life educating us" -- which could pretty much be the motto of Carly's songwriting career and certainly of this album and, yes, of this track.

Which makes it the perfect segue for "Coming Around Again" (originally on 1988's album of the same title). The acoustic nature of so many of the songs on the album will probably be most appreciated with this track. A musical change (along with the lack of synths and drum machines) is that the eighth note doing an octave leap to a quarter note figure that appears at the end of some verses in the original runs throughout this version. The new perspective -- throughout the album -- takes the near whispered verses and provides them in normal voice while taking the chorus ("I know nothing stays the same, But if you're willing to play the game, It's coming around again") into more of a whisper.

What's the point of that? In the original, the daily events (with their own daily trauma) couldn't be spoken of directly, they had to be softened. Now they're matter of fact, just what it is. And turning the chorus into the whisper makes it the secret, the wisdom she's choosing to share. This song also features a wonderful addition to the original lyrics:

The heartbeat went out of our house
The rhythm went out of our romance
But in life that happens
And you just have to remember to breathe
And it then
It then will return
Well if you just remember to breathe
After all I've been through
I waded on through
If I can just remember to breathe

"We can never, we can never know," is how "Anticipation" now opens. The re-imagined classic may be the easiest for even the casual listener to grasp the concept of the album: Examination. It's their on the cover, with Carly holding the magnifying glass. What was a song she wrote in the early seventies about waiting for Cat Stevens to arrive for their date is now a song gathering the memories and the loved ones.

And when the sun returns
I will prefer to sing your haunting melody
You'll take the notes that harmonize me
And bring me back
To Hallelujah
For the rest of my life.

That's from the final track, "Songbird." Another new offering. And it continues the benediction nature of the album. Maybe if a recent best-of hadn't been called Reflections, this collection could have been? As with Emily Dickinson's poem, this is reflection on all that comes before. She's gathered a thousand seemingly unconnected strands for this album and made an incredibly strong and cohesive artistic statement. This isn't a best-of or a greatest hits, this is an album in every sense of the word. And the theme is a life lived and lessons learned and how what we once indicated deepens in age (check out "Anticipation"). And, most of all, how these moments are fleeting and time never stops for any of us ("these are the good old days").

Carly's released Never Been Gone on her son Ben Taylor's Iris Records and you can see Ben's "Wicked Ways" video at the homepage of Iris Records. Like Betty, I have tremendous fears that this might be Carly's recorded hug goodbye. Hopefully, that won't be the case; however, if it should turn out to be, it was a warm and gentle hug, a memorable one. And she's made the best album of the year. I won't tease you until January 1st on my pick for the best album of 2009. One listen to Never Been Gone and it should be obvious.

I'll close by noting some other community members thoughts on Carly's songs from last week:

"That's a review?"
"Carly Simon on Today today"
"Carly Simon invites you into her dreams"
"carly coming around again"
"Equality, Russ Feingold, Carly Simon"
"Carly Simon, Dennis Kucinich"
"Carly Simon's last album?"
"Carly Simon's Never Been Gone"
"Recommend album: Never Been Gone"
"carly releases new album, blowhard attacks"
"Andy Worthington, Carly Simon"
"Carly Simon makes sense, Patrick Cockburn doesn't"
"wowOwow, Carly"
"carly simon's new album"
"Carly's new CD"
"Isaiah, Carly Simon, Hank"
"Isaiah, Carly Simon, Third"

And, of course, at Third last Sunday we did "The Carly Roundtable" where we weighed in on our favorite Carly album.