Discog Fever - Rating and Reviewing Every Carly Simon Album (Part 2)

by Jeff Fiedler

Discog Fever is a regular feature on thegreatalbums.com, rating and reviewing a band's entire catalogue of studio albums.

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Come Upstairs (1980, Warner Bros.)

B +

Carly arguably never sounded hipper – or quite as hard-rocking, for that matter (at least by Carly Simon standards, anyway) – than she does on this disc, which often comes across as Carly’s reaction to Linda Ronstadt’s then-recent and well-received new-wave makeover Mad Love. Even the ballads here (highlighted by “The Desert” and the clever “The Three of Us in the Dark”) have a distinct edge to them that makes them considerably more appealing than such earlier, gooier ballads as “The Carter Family” or “Julie Through the Looking Glass.” Those who prefer Carly’s more meditative and confessional sides like “That’s the Way I’ve Always Heard It Should Be” may find the album disappointing, but for less discriminating tastes, the makeover is quite refreshing and results in a genuinely fun album that has both more up-tempo material and less filler than normal. “Stardust,” “Take Me As I Am,” and the seductive title cut (the melody of which was certainly strong enough to warrant consideration as a single, though the lyrics to the song’s chorus all but ensured that most radio programmers would be nervous about playing the cut) are Carly at her most playful, while the synth-heavy freak-out of “Them” is as new-wave as Carly would ever get. Best of all is the easygoing groove of the biting singalong “Jesse,” which missed the Top Ten by just one slot but is actually arguably better than nearly any of Carly’s Top Ten hits with the exception of “You’re So Vain” and remains one of her most criminally underrated singles.   

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Torch (1981, Warner Bros.)

B –   

In what can only be seen as an act of career suicide, Carly made the unusual decision to make her second album of the ‘80s – and her second for her new home of Warner Brothers after spending the entirety of the ‘70s on Elektra – a full-blown standards disc. Mind you, Linda Ronstadt would not only do the same thing just two years later with her album What’s New but would cut three standards albums in a row during the mid-‘80s, but it was still a questionable career move on the part of Carly, especially considering that Come Upstairs and the near-Top-Ten success of “Jesse” had helped her to bounce back commercially after the lukewarm response to Spy. As far as standards albums go, however, it’s actually quite respectable, not simply because it was created long before such discs became such a painfully commonplace practice for older artists looking to bide time until their next set of originals but also because Carly largely eschews choosing anything too ubiquitous, instead opting for less familiar titles like “I Get Along Without You Very Well” and “Spring Is Here.” Carly also throws in one new original, “From the Heart,” that fits in surprisingly well, but the album’s true highlight is its chilling closer, Carly’s reading of Stephen Sondheim’s “Not a Day Goes By,” which is sure to bring tears to your eyes. Not surprisingly, the album was her lowest-charting album yet and severely damaged her standing at pop radio – it would be six years before she’d finally return to the Top 40 – but, artistically, it was an admirably gutsy move considering that hardly anyone was doing this sort of thing at the time, and you can tell both from the song selection and Carly’s vocal performances that it’s more of a passion project than a calculated endeavor. The disc isn’t exactly essential Carly, but if you’re going to pick up one of her standards discs, you may as well start at where it all began.

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Hello Big Man (1983, Warner Bros.)

B –

Stung by the poor response to Torch, Carly returned to her mainstream pop sound of old on Hello Big Man. Had this disc been the follow-up to Come Upstairs, it almost certainly would have done much better on the charts, but the mere existence of Torch affected Carly’s image in a negative way and this disc was mostly ignored. Like Come Upstairs, this is a very well-produced and mostly tasteful attempt at updating Carly’s sound for the ‘80s, but the rock influences have been largely dialed down and the songwriting’s a tad less strong this time out. (There’s certainly nothing quite as immediate here as “Jesse,” anyway.) “You Know What to Do,” “Orpheus,” “It Happens Everyday,” and the title cut are all minor gems, though, and deserve discovery. The album’s biggest flaw is that there at least three reggae-influenced tunes here – not just originals like “Such a Good Boy” and “Floundering” but even a full-blown Bob Marley cover in “Is This Love?” (an utterly fabulous song, of course, and one of Marley's very best, but not one that Carly ought to be covering) – and Carly sounds too stiff and unnatural trying her hand at the genre.

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Spoiled Girl (1985, Epic)

C

Carly’s first and – as it would turn out – only album for Epic is arguably the least cohesive album in her catalog. That isn’t to say it’s devoid of good tunes – the excellent “Come Back Home,” easily one of her most underrated post-‘70s songs, nicely foreshadows the tasteful adult-contemporary pop of her next album and should have been issued as a single, while “Black Honeymoon” (sadly included only on the cassette and CD editions of the album and only available on vinyl as a B-side), reuniting her with former co-writer Jacob Brackman, is even better. But Carly has never seemed more lost as an artist than she does here; she tries on a potpourri of different sounds here and works with just as many different producers, resulting in a disc that careens wildly between graceful adult-contemporary like “Come Back Home” and “Black Honeymoon” and more shamelessly calculated outings like the dance-pop of “My New Boyfriend” or the lite arena-rock sounds of “Tired of Being Blonde.” Throughout the disc, you get the sense that Carly was desperate for a hit but didn’t know how best to get back on the radio after five years of misses, so she simply tried everything and hoped something would stick. Unfortunately, none of it did – the album bombed – and the album mostly sounds like a jumbled mess.

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Coming Around Again (1987, Arista)

A –  

Arguably the best of her post-Come Upstairs albums, Simon bounces back in a big way here from the misfires of Spoiled Girl. Part of that is a newfound focus – Simon largely sticks to the appealing adult-contemporary sounds of the last album’s “Come Back Home” and doesn’t seem anywhere near as desperate for a hit this time around – and the other part is the strength of the material. Simply, Carly hasn’t written this strong a set of original material since Spy and Come Upstairs, and radio apparently agreed – while only one song here had enough crossover appeal to land in the Top 40, this disc yielded not just one or two but an astounding four Top Ten Adult-Contemporary smashes that were regular fixtures on lite-FM stations throughout 1987, every last one of the four an expertly-crafted example of adult-contemporary pop at its best. The stirring title cut – taken from the film Heartburn and easily the most tear-inducing track Carly had cut since “Not a Day Goes By” six years earlier would deservedly be Carly’s biggest hit since “Jesse,” cracking the Top Twenty. “Give Me All Night” and “The Stuff That Dreams Are Made Of” are both every bit as catchy and as tasteful as that title cut and became radio hits in their own right. The album’s true hidden gem is the sultry and wildly catchy “All I Want Is You,” which sadly stopped at #54 on the Hot 100 but should have been a Top 40 smash; boasting a rare guest turn from the criminally-underrated Roberta Flack on backing vocals, the utterly gorgeous song is Carly’s most effortlessly sexy song since “You Belong to Me.” The album’s lone downfall is that it doesn’t know when to stop; had the disc ended with “All I Want Is You,” it’d be a near-perfect adult-contemporary album, but it goes on for two more songs, both of them remarkably ill-advised, a stiff cover of Joe Tex’s “Hold on to What You’ve Got” and, even worse, “Itsy Bitsy Spider,” which is just about the most un-sexy song you could possibly choose to close out a lite-FM-oriented album.

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My Romance (1990, Arista)

C

Carly strangely let three years elapse before releasing a follow-up to her comeback smash Coming Around Again, and when she finally did, it was another all-standards affair. Like Torch, it’s a beautiful and well-sung album (Carly sounds better doing standards than most of her peers), but this time around, it feels like more of a stopgap product than the labor of love that Torch clearly was, if only because the song selection here just seems too calculated and heavy on songs that have already been covered to death, like “Time After Time,” “In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning,” “Bewitched,” and “My Funny Valentine.” It’s not at all a bad album, all things considered – it’s just not nearly as essential or as worthwhile as Torch.  

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Have You Seen Me Lately (1990, Arista)

B –

Carly returns here to the adult-contemporary pop of Coming Around Again, but this time around, she doesn't have nearly as good a batch of songs to work with in the studio. “Waiting at the Gate,” written from the perspective of a wife with a husband in a halfway house, is a bit too insular for its own good, while “It’s Not Like Him” gets really annoying really quickly with its constant and melodramatic repetition of the title phrase. The title cut is a much better piece of songwriting, but the drum machines employed on the cut take away from the song. But the island-tinged sounds of “Life Is Eternal," one of Carly's best '90s sides, and the snappy “Don’t Wrap It Up” are both fun, and the opening cut, the languid, breezy “Better Not Tell Her” is an adult-contemporary-pop masterpiece that is every bit as brilliant as “Coming Around Again” or “All I Want Is You” and should have been a much, much bigger hit than it was. Ridiculously, the song missed the Hot 100 altogether, although it did deservedly shoot all the way up to #4 on the Adult Contemporary charts. The album is undeniably spottier than its predecessor, but there are still just enough minor gems here to make this as enjoyable a disc as such underrated outings as Hello Big Man or Another Passenger.