Discog Fever - Rating and Reviewing Every Carly Simon Album (Part 1)

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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Carly Simon (1971, Elektra)

C –

Simon took home the Grammy award for Best New Artist in 1972 following the release of this album, but whether or not Grammy voters actually considered this the year’s best album by a newcomer is up to debate – more likely than not, they gave her the award simply on the basis of the album’s single, because the album itself is mostly very forgettable and a bit too melodramatic to take completely seriously. The overreliance on ballads here (the album’s much too short on up-tempo material to be all that fun a listen) might not be so wearying if the songs were at least more memorable, but while Simon’s talents as a lyricist are already apparent, she doesn’t seem to really have much of a gift at this point for coming up with strong melodies, and it quickly becomes apparent why Elektra only released one single from the album. The single sure did make a statement, though – the chilling, sparse piano ballad “That’s the Way I’ve Always Heard It Should Be” sounded like little else, either musically or lyrically, and, alongside Carole King’s Tapestry, had a considerable influence on the musical landscape, paving the way for a whole new kind of female performer, one both far more introspective and more liberated than the pop princesses of the ‘50s and ‘60s. [Ironically, though, the song’s lyric was actually written by a man – in this case, Simon’s frequent collaborator, Jacob Brackman.] The haunting song deservedly gave Simon her first hit – and a Top Ten, at that – and became one of the signature tunes of the singer-songwriter movement that was sweeping the country at the time thanks to artists like King, Joni Mitchell, Jackson Browne, and James Taylor. The problem was there wasn’t anything else on the album even remotely as memorable, with the sole possible exception of “Dan, My Fling.” Like most debut albums by diamonds in the rough, the disc makes an interesting curio piece, but the emphasis on lyric over melody ultimately sinks the album, and the odds that you’ll come back to the record repeatedly to listen to anything other than its famous single are pretty slim.

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Anticipation (1971, Elektra)

B +

A dramatic improvement on its self-titled predecessor, and though much is made by reviewers of the sheer power exhibited – and the gutsy feminist statement made – by Simon on the closing cut, “I’ve Got to Have You” (actually penned by Kris Kristofferson, though he wouldn’t record the song himself until his duet album with then-wife Rita Coolidge, Breakaway, three years later), Simon’s passionate vocal performances and increased self-confidence are less critical to the success of the album than Simon’s remarkable growth as a composer, and the melodies here are largely much more immediate than those from the previous album. “Our First Day Together,” “The Girl You Think You See,” and “Summer’s Coming Around Again” are more appealing album cuts than anything from Carly Simon and help to make the album’s first half a memorable one, but it’s the album’s two opening cuts (both singles) that stick with you the longest. “Legend in Your Own Time” is a deliciously biting number that foreshadows her later hit “You’re So Vain,” while the title cut is one of Carly’s most infectious melodies of all and boasts some of the most emotionally intense and inventive performances ever laid down by the great session drummer Andy Newmark, later to join Sly & the Family Stone and Roxy Music.

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No Secrets (1972, Elektra)

A

Produced by the great Richard Perry (best known for his work with Harry Nilsson, Ringo Starr, and Barbra Streisand) and arguably Simon’s finest hour as a performer and songwriter both, this album – like most of Carly’s discs – does have its filler (“The Carter Family” and “His Friends Are More Than Fond of Robin” being the two weakest tunes in the bunch here), but the weak moments are few (“We Have No Secrets” might even be her best non-single yet), and not only has Carly brought a fine set of material to the table here, but she actually seems to be having great fun for a change, too, and this is her most playful record up to this point, even going so far as to include a cover of then-husband James Taylor’s “Night Owl” (taken from his 1968 self-titled debut on Apple Records) featuring not just the great Nicky Hopkins and Bobby Keys on piano and sax, respectively, but also Paul and Linda McCartney, Bonnie Bramlett, and Doris Troy of “Just One Look” fame on backing vocals! But even that all-star affair is overshadowed by the album’s two utterly brilliant singles. The buoyant and radiant “The Right Thing to Do” admittedly sounds much less like Carly’s past material than it does your average Carole King single – you’d almost swear this had to be an outtake from one of Carole’s albums – but it’s fabulous all the same and also gives you an idea of what Tapestry might have sounded like with more studio sheen and less muddied vocals. The disc also boasts Carly’s first and only chart-topper, the deliriously fun kiss-off “You’re So Vain” – not only the best song Carly has ever written but a legitimate contender for the title of the greatest pop single put out by any female artist during the ‘70s. It’s a masterful piece of songwriting to begin with, but the arrangement, right down to such little touches as Klaus Voorman’s slinky opening bass riff, drummer Jim Gordon’s thunderous fills, Jimmy Ryan’s blistering guitar solo, and, of course, Mick Jagger’s harmonies throughout, are utterly note-perfect.  

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Hotcakes (1973, Elektra)

A –

Ranking second only to No Secrets as the best of her early albums, Hotcakes is a concept album of sorts, finding Simon, who was pregnant with her first child during the making of the record (fittingly, one of the highlights of this album is entitled “Think I’m Gonna Have a Baby”), musing extensively on the subject of domestic bliss and in a generally happier mood than was apparent on any of her three prior affairs. (Fittingly, this is the studio album where you’ll find her Top Twenty smash “Haven’t Got Time for the Pain.”) Though the lyrical bite of past songs like “Legend in Your Own Time” and “You’re So Vain” is slightly missed (though it does peek through in smaller doses in the appealing “Misfit”) , happy Carly is still preferable to the overly pensive Carly of her self-titled debut, and there are many appealing, even downright fun, cuts to be found here, not in the least her playful cover of Inez and Charlie Foxx’s “Mockingbird,” performed as a duet with then-hubby James Taylor (who also co-wrote the excellent “Forever My Love”) and also featuring The Band’s Robbie Robertson on guitar and Dr. John on keys. While No Secrets has the better pair of singles, Hotcakes’ thematic unity and consistent tone makes the disc feel like more of a proper and ambitious album piece than any other disc Carly recorded during the ‘70s.

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Playing Possum (1975, Elektra)

C

Easily more remembered these days for its provocative and then-controversial album cover (featuring a scantily-clad Carly on her knees) than for any of the music contained within, Playing Possum finds Carly noticeably scaling way back on the more domestic and maternal themes of its predecessor and trying to reclaim her status as a sultry songstress. This is never more apparent than it is on “Waterfall,” easily Simon’s most sexually suggestive song to date, and the highly controversial and distinctly un-feminist “Slave,” which both the top brass at Elektra and even Carly’s own manager understandably wanted to leave off the album entirely. (Carly, in contrast, not only threatened to walk out if it got left off but also unsuccessfully lobbied for the cut to be released as the album’s first single.) The emphasis on playing up her sex appeal wouldn’t be such a big deal if the songs were at least good [Come Upstairs is arguably an even more risqué album than this one, but that disc is a heck of a lot more fun to listen to than this record is], but Simon’s songwriting chops have taken a real dive since the last record, and the lyrics and melodies both are considerably sub-par. Not even a guest turn from the legendary Carole King on backing vocals can redeem the cheesy lite-disco of “Attitude Dancing,” a comically awkward attempt by Carly (whose music, even at its best, has never been especially danceable) to initiate a new dance craze, and the other two singles here – “Waterfall” and “More and More,” the latter written by Dr. John and featuring Ringo Starr on drums – are even less memorable. As an album piece, it’s at least still more appealing overall than her debut album, but at least that record had a genuinely good single in “That’s the Way I’ve Always Heard It Should Be,” whereas this album desperately could use a song as tasteful and instantly infectious as “The Right Thing to Do” or “You’re So Vain” to make up for the abundance of filler.

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Another Passenger (1976, Elektra)

B –

It sold worse than Playing Possum and failed to yield any Top 40 hits at all (the first first-length from Simon to fail to do so), but artistically, at least, Another Passenger – boasting guest appearances from Little Feat, the Doobie Brothers, Jackson Browne, Glenn Frey, and Andrew Gold, just to name a few of the big names here – is an assuring step back in the right direction. Simon’s still yet to fully recapture her melodic chops, so none of the originals here are especially immediate and are only moderately more infectious than those on Playing Possum, but the material is more tasteful this time around, and cuts like “In Times When My Head,” “Half a Chance,” and “Fairweather Father” are Carly’s best originals since Hotcakes. The disc’s best moment, though, is a cover of the Doobie Brothers’ “It Keeps You Runnin’,” complete with the Doobies themselves on backing vocals (fittingly, this album was produced by Ted Templeman, who had also produced the Doobies’ own version); Carly’s own version wouldn’t fare quite as well on the charts – it stopped just outside the Top 40, peaking at #46, while the Michael McDonald-led version reached #37 – but it’s just as good as the original and ranks among Carly’s most underrated singles.

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Boys in the Trees (1978, Elektra)

B

It’s not quite a total return to form and it’s also sadly missing “Nobody Does It Better,” Carly’s theme song for the 1977 James Bond movie The Spy Who Loved Me and her biggest hit since “You’re So Vain,” but the classy Boys in the Trees – helmed by Arif Mardin, best known for his productions for the likes of Aretha Franklin, Hall & Oates, Average White Band, and the Bee Gees, and boasting such great session players as Richard Tee, Steve Gadd, and the Brecker Brothers – arguably ranks as Carly’s best album since Hotcakes, not just for the quality of the material but also due to the positive influence Mardin has on Simon’s vocal delivery, smoothing out the rough edges and bringing out a soulful side of her that was scarcely noticeable on prior outings. The James Taylor duet “Devoted to You” (a cover of the Everly Brothers classic) ranks right up there with “Mockingbird” as one of the better collaborations by the couple, while “For Old Times’ Sake” and the title cut are better-than-average Carly Simon album cuts. The opening cut is undeniably the album’s highlight, though; the fantastic “You Belong to Me” – co-written with Michael McDonald through the mail and also featuring a brilliant sax solo from David Sanborn – is both the catchiest Carly-penned single since “Haven’t Got Time for the Pain” and the most R&B-influenced side she’s cut up to this point. (It’d even later be covered by such R&B greats as Anita Baker and Chaka Khan.) The album stops well short of reaching the greatness of such discs as No Secrets and Hotcakes, though, due to one too many failed genre experiments – namely, the heavily disco-flavored “Tranquillo (Melt My Heart)” and the calypso stylings of “De Bat (Fly in Me Face)” – that just seem ridiculous rather than ambitious. Swap out two or three cuts for “Nobody Does It Better,” though, and this would likely be a much higher-regarded album.

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Spy (1979, Elektra)

B

Carly’s final album of the Seventies scarcely attracted any attention, becoming her lowest-charting album yet (petering out at #45) and, like Another Passenger, failing to yield any Top 40 hits, but it ranks among Carly’s most underrated albums. The deliciously funky opening cut, “Vengeance,” is both her hardest-rocking and her most lyrically biting single since “You’re So Vain,” and features a fun guest turn from The Rocky Horror Picture Show’s Tim Curry on harmony vocals; it inexplicably stalled on the Hot 100 at #48 and typically gets left off of Carly’s best-of discs, but it might be the most underrated single of her career. “Pure Sin” is similarly one of Carly’s most rock-tinged songs in years. “Just Like You Do,” meanwhile, revisits the pleasant lush R&B sounds of “You Belong to Me” from the prior album and should have been a hit in its own right. “Spy” is pure disco, but it’s a more artistically successful stab at that genre than Boys in the Trees’ “Tranquillo (Melt My Heart),” while the vaguely-bossa-nova-tinged “Love You By Heart” appealingly recalls “The Right Thing to Do” and would have fit right at home on No Secrets or Hotcakes. It’s also hard not to get chills listening to the massed harmonies that open and close “Never Been Gone,” easily one of Carly’s most appealing ballads of the ‘70s. Unless you’re a hardcore Carly fan, you’re not likely to know any of these songs before you pick up the disc, but give this one a shot – it’s actually better than some of her other ‘70s albums that do have hits on them