About a year ago, word got out that Carole King was talking to Warner Bros. vice-president Russ Titelman about producing her comeback album. For King’s long-suffering fans, this was practically thrilling news. Titelman, after all, had rejuvenated Steve Winwood on his Back in the High Life; moreover, Titelman had known King in her Brill Building years. Presumably, he would be able to update her sound without undermining its melodic essence.
But King and Titelman never came to terms, and she ended up back at Capitol, the scene of her disappointing albums of the late Seventies, coproducing herself with her new guitarist, Rudy Guess. She had a lot of the right ideas for City Streets — organizing a new band, hiring some high-profile guests, including Eric Clapton and Max Weinberg, who have added some needed bulk (Clapton’s guitar on the title cut, Weinberg’s propulsive drumming on “Sweet Life”) to King’s resonant melodies. Yet City Streets still lacks the spark that would help the album transcend mere competence. King has yet to re-create the chemistry of her work with producer Lou Adler on Tapestry and its immediate follow-ups in the early Seventies.
Since Tapestry, one of the stumbling blocks for King has been lyrics. She has collaborated with some of rock’s great lyricists — her former husband, Gerry Goffin, and Toni Stern — but Stern’s work hasn’t appeared on any King album since 1972, and Goffin hasn’t written an outstanding lyric for King since “Smackwater Jack.” On City Streets, Goffin serves up some warmed over imagery in “Midnight Flyer” that defeats King’s buoyant melody. And in “Legacy,” King and Guess deliver a shrill, finger-pointing homily on the environment (the intentions are good, but, hey, most of the time it doesn’t rhyme).
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City Streets gets nine cuts deep before King sings a lyric worthy of her melodies: “Homeless Heart,” with words by John Bettis, who has written hits for the likes of Madonna, Michael Jackson and Karen Carpenter. This desperate tale of lost love inspires King’s most lucid melody and sturdiest vocal; she even turns the mike over to daughter Sherry Goffin for a gorgeous snippet at the end.
“Homeless Heart” is a ray of hope, proving that King doesn’t have to be a legend gathering dust in the Songwriters’ Hall of Fame. Indeed, the woman whose “Locomotion” is a hit all over again and whose Tapestry was a major influence on Tracy Chapman deserves to be a part of contemporary music. If City Streets doesn’t provide the redemption that she and her fans have been seeking, at least the album’s underlying message is that if she had a smart producer and some smart lyricists, it still wouldn’t be too late, baby.