By Jonathan Schwartz
"I was going to do a rock album with Booker T, without the mgs," Carly Simon told me with a chuckle not long ago. "But we had a problem. Neither of us likes to fly, and he's in California and I'm on Martha's Vineyard. We thought about recording in Chicago. Then I got a call from a record producer who told me of a meeting at Columbia Records during which he had said: ‘Doesn't the word lullaby sound synonymous with Carly Simon?' As far as lullabies go, I knew the language."
Instead of a rock album with Booker T, we now have Into White, a gentle, generous cd, a beautiful contribution from a singer whose voice is as familiar to me as my own. My family and hers were friends, and I spent many summers at the Simons' Connecticut home. Carly and I just about grew up together, sang everything together: "I'll meet you in the barn after dinner." "Do you think it'll rain this afternoon?" Everyone sang. Carly's two sisters, Lucy and Joanna; Uncle Peter; Carly's mother; and the gypsies who wandered through.
Now Carly's children, Sally, 33, and Ben, 29--their father is singer/songwriter James Taylor--join her on many of the songs. The title cut, Into White, is a 1971 Cat Stevens' song. The other tracks are for the most part songs we all know: Oh! Susanna, Scarborough Fair, Blackbird, You Are My Sunshine, Jamaica Farewell, and Somewhere Over the Rainbow. You may not know the name of the theme from the 1959 film Black Orpheus--it's Manha de Carnaval--but you'll recognize the melancholy melody. Carly's lyric is simply la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la.
Let's consider this remarkable artist. Carly is 61, and has been recording since 1971. Her first hit single, That's the Way I Always Heard It Should Be, was an entirely original and somewhat spooky glimpse of her family's dark corners. Jacob Brackman, a close friend and superb essayist for The New Yorker at the time, captured the corridors of her parents' marriage, and set his lyric to Carly's remarkable melody.
Could it be that it's 36 years later? Think of the albums, the film scores, the videos, the hit singles--Anticipation, You're So Vain, and Let The River Run--a bundle of them. An outpouring from a creative spirit over so many years.
Carly came from a background of classical music and American standards. In the late 1960s she embraced rock, music of different shapes and often with sharper inflection, making recordings that might have unnerved Richard Rodgers or Jerome Kern (but not necessarily George Gershwin, who had turned all sorts of corners in his American in Paris, Rhapsody in Blue, and Concerto in F).
"Your voice won't ever let you down," I told her last summer. "Happily you have no vibrato. You could go on forever."
On Into White she is soothing and reassuring. The minimalist arrangements are utterly beautiful. They are dear, sweet things, those arrangements, collaborating with Carly through a peaceful, knowing glance. Come to think of it, that is what Into White is all about: a peaceful, knowing glance to its star and to us, who have lived through this music from our childhoods to now, all of us, a nice crowd of intimates, gathered around the stereo for music that will never end.
Jonathan Schwartz hosts High Standards, a channel on XM Satellite Radio, as well as weekend shows on WNYC-FM, a New York public radio station.