Monday, February 07, 2005

Carly Simon: Anthology

Carly Simon never quite made it into the top echelon of female singer/songwriters. Her songs were neither as hauntingly confessional as those of Joni Mitchell, nor as consistently tuneful as those of Carole King.
Still, her Anthology presents a distinctive personality that has aged well. If her best song is still her first hit, the trenchant and chilling, "That's the Way I've Always Heard It Should Be," she nevertheless had enough high points over the years to justify this collection.
Back in the 1970s, Carly Simon was the woman my female college friends wanted to grow up to become (Hell, I wanted to become her). She was smart and urbane, funny and sexy. She had James Taylor and an apparently happy and normal domestic life, while at the same time managing to be creative and successful in her career. That's the personality she projects in her best songs of the period -- "You're So Vain," "The Right Thing To Do," "Haven't Got Time For the Pain."
As the '70s proceeded, she began to reveal the insecurities behind the successful image. As a songwriter, her great theme became the suspicion and mistrust that are the flip side of a too-romantic outlook. It surfaces even in wistful tunes like "Boys In The Trees." She's often the first to betray ("In Times When My Head"), but then she turns that betrayal around and uses it as a defense against being hurt.
But she's an inconsistent writer, and that has been her limitation. Her first couple of albums, as I recall, were nearly unlistenable except for the one or two hits they contained. And that's still true of some recent outings.
Her worst songs have a sing-song, nursery rhyme quality, ironic in that some of her more interesting work has involved children's songs. She recorded a children's album with her sister Lucy before her solo career took off, and on Coming Around Again she does a sweet take on "The Itsy Bitsy Spider" with her children. The rendition a little bit jazzy, and she segues nicely into the title song, from the film Heartburn.
Ms. Simon's skills as a cover artist have never gotten enough due. Her taste is superb: Covering Stephen Sondheim, she chooses the little-known, "Not A Day Goes By" rather than a more obvious selection like "Send In The Clowns." And her selection of songs by the Doobie Brothers, Everly Brothers, John Lennon and others are are nearly as wise and careful as those made by the greatest cover artist of our era, Emmylou Harris. Better yet, Carly Simon seems to understand really understand the standards she sings, unlike, say, Linda Ronstadt, who never encountered a lyric she couldn't shout.
In general, I don't have a lot of use for rock-era singers who have reached back and recorded "standards" albums. I find their work almost uniformly over-orchestrated and underfelt. Carly Simon's ventures into this territory are a lovely and surprising exception. Ms. Simon's version of "My Funny Valentine" is, for my money, one of the very best I have encountered. It's a song I never loved until I heard her sing it.
As she approaches 60, Ms. Simon still has the rich alto she first revealed nearly 40 years ago. Here's to more from her.