Listening to Carole King's "Legendary Demos," you enter an alternate pop universe where her stardom didn't begin with 1971's "Tapesty" but actually got under way a decade or so earlier, with King herself enjoying the spoils of her songwriting instead of giving her hits away to everybody from the Shirelles and Righteous Brothers to Aretha Franklin.
It's a fun exercise in "What if...?" -- and maybe a slightly wistful one, since "Legendary Demos" makes you feel that maybe we lost something by not having King kick off her recording career until 10 years after she'd established her writing career. She could've been a great 1960s hitmaker; the mystery is why no one forced her Jane Hancock onto a recording contract years sooner.
The collection starts with the song you might least imagine King singing -- the Monkees' hit "Pleasant Valley Sunday," the jangly sound of which never became part of her wheelhouse. (The lyrics, as with most of her early tunes, were by then-husband Gary Goffin, who was waxing sarcastic about the New Jersey suburbs King had moved them out to from Manhattan.)
For anyone who thinks "demo" will be synonymous with "girl alone at her piano," the full-band arrangement of "Pleasant Valley Sunday" comes as a pleasant surprise, and several other numbers follow suit. The most elaborate, "Like Little Children," is a full-blown pop/R&B recording with horns and female backing vocals that wouldn't give you a moment's pause if someone snuck it onto an oldies station.
Tracks that do consist of just King at her piano are just as delightful, including the earliest, a 1961 take of "Take Good Care of My Baby" (a Bobby Vee hit) that has King blueprinting the most interesting parts of the eventual arrangement with just one set of keys. On "Crying in the Rain" (a 1962 Everly Brothers smash), vocal overdubs turn King into a one-gal girl group.
The track list might initially seem slightly disappointing, if your hope is to hear King singing tunes that were only famously recorded by other artists. For instance, there's no "Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow," since, as the liner notes explain, the vocals for that particular demo were recorded by the Shirelles, not King.
Six of the 13 tracks here eventually ended up re-recorded for "Tapestry," but that doesn't make the album feel overly familiar, since some of the arrangements here are very late-'60s-period-specific. You could put her 1967 version of "(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman" up against the one she released four years later -- or, to be potentially blasphemous, against the one Aretha had a hit with that year.
And "Way Over Yonder" is indisputably better than its "Tapestry" update, since the slower, more soulful feel better reinforces that this nice Jewish girl was trying her hand at gospel.
Is it ever too late to get a terrific, newly recovered proto-version of "It's Too Late"? Not often are we graced with the equivalent of a great lost 1960s album that's finally being liberated from the vaults, which makes "Legendary Demos" a time capsule that's particularly easy to swallow.