Carole King's first album in nearly a decade comes at just the right time for some people. If the world doesn't need a collection of 12 songs about love now, when will it?
Love is the answer on "Love Makes the World," the 24th album by the legendary tunesmith, in its best forms - from passionate romance to the rarest of friendship. You won't find any issues or message songs here. No politics, anger or railing about the environment. Just hope and love and King's warm, familiar voice.
This record is a labor of love, too. King self-financed the project and released it on her own label, Rockingale Records (an anagram of Carole King, she points out on an interview CD provided to the media). She says she wanted to bypass record companies and their notorious bullying and make "Love Makes the World" her way, with her chosen collaborators. Which sounds like a good thing, until King hints that it may have been out of necessity because the big labels only want to invest in teenage boy bands. What's wrong with an industry that doesn't bend over backward when King - an icon who's been writing songs for four decades - wants to entertain us?
The album (as King herself prefers to call it) opens with the title track, and immediately we get a taste of the rest of the CD. Very polished, maybe even slick at times. Definitely produced by people who believe production is the most important part of the process. And very little of the strong, soothing piano we want from a Carole King album.
"Love Makes the World" is a slightly funky, uptempo song that begins with King singing in a conversational way. Kind of like she's talking. Actually, kind of like she's rapping. The song was produced by two 30ish musical wizards known collectively as PopRox. It could have been a disaster (I mean, really - Carole King rapping?), but the tune is one of the best on the album, chiefly because it uses the same piano chords as "So Far Away," one of King's most beautiful and best-loved songs. In fact, "So Far Away" can be heard segueing into a tease of "Love Makes the World" on a current Gap commercial featuring King and daughter Louise Goffin.
Co-producer, co-writer and co-singer Kenny "Babyface" Edmonds adds some soul to the next track, "You Can Do Anything," a real "You've Got a Friend"-type song in both lyrics and sound. King even says it's just the kind of song she wrote when she worked with James Taylor.
The entire album isn't produced by young hipsters who have their fingers on the pulse of urban music, however. Humberto Gatica gets main producing credit, with help from another writing powerhouse, Carole Bayer Sager. And that's pretty much the tone of "Love Makes the World" - a mix of old pros and accomplished kids. Solid old-school songwriting brought to life with some of today's technology. But the bad - or new - outweighs the good - or old - and the album runs the risk of being branded banal easy-listening filler.
King does her own version of a song previously recorded by Celine Dion, "The Reason," with Dion singing backup. It's a powerful, bursting love song right up Dion's alley, but it has more maturity and less tortured emotion in King's hands. In the CD interview, King reveals that the song was written for Aerosmith, of all bands. What she doesn't tell us is how the wailing guitars that would have been right at home on an Aerosmith CD wound up on this track.
"I Wasn't Gonna Fall in Love" is the most "techno" on the album, a song in the "smooth jazz" format. Wynton Marsalis performs on the song, but even his sax playing fails to put the programmed drum beats and showy layered harmonies in their place.
"It Could Have Been Anyone" gets a David Foster treatment that renders it unrecognizable as the song that accompanies the closing credits of "You've Got Mail." That song was clear and sweet and lingered in the mind long after the movie. This one you'll never remember after only one listen.
But "An Uncommon Love" pairs King with another strong woman with a distinctive voice, k.d. lang, and its sparse arrangement, which includes a string quartet, allows the women to take center stage.
A remake of 1967's "Oh No Not My Baby" is the King we came to hear - the rich piano sound, the vocals with the familiar phrasing and pausing.
The album closes with two songs written solely by King, and both are spare, piano-heavy, underproduced gems. "Safe Again" is presciently timely, with its wish to feel safe and loved. "This Time" is another wonderfully simple song that wasn't overly madeup in the studio.
It's hard not to compare "Love Makes the World" with "Tapestry," King's masterpiece from 1971. King mentions the celebrated album in the interview, but she says she wanted to bring a fresh, contemporary sound to the new songs and broke with tradition. Someone who's been making music as long as King has should know that bells and whistles aren't needed when the songs are strong.
Love Makes The World
Carole King (Rockingale Records)
Rating: ** 1/2
(Out of four)