It can't be easy trying to establish yourself as a singer/songwriter when you're a child of a well-known musician, let alone two well known musicians, so it's understandable that it has taken Louise Goffin a while to find her own voice. The daughter of Carole King and Gerry Goffin, Louise Goffin's new release, her first in nearly 14 years, is the latest in an increasingly lengthening line of albums by children of famous musicians, and it had to be a daunting task to step out of the shadow of her illustrious parents. Her mom made Tapestry, for crying out loud, and don't get me started on the legendary King-Goffin songwriting partnership. While few have managed to match their parents' fame with commercial success of their own, Goffin's new CD Sometimes a Circle, despite a couple of lukewarm moments, shows she's more than ready to emerge as a big-time talent.
The musical arrangements on Sometimes a Circle sound a bit like Jon Brion's work on Fiona Apple's albums, but minus Ms. Apple's neuroses, with Goffin's girlish voice (think Juliana Hatfield) masking the depth of her lyrics. It doesn't hurt that Goffin is married to producer Greg Wells, whose earlier producer credits includes Rufus Wainright, as well as Amy Correia's much underrated debut album from a couple years ago. At first, I didn't know what to make of Sometimes a Circle, but after several listens, it grew on me in a big way. Anyone who enjoyed Correia's album (if you did, congratulate yourself for having such good taste) should thoroughly enjoy this one.
Goffin describes her album as "a humorous look at the absurdity of modern life," which perfectly encapsulates the theme of the record. The CD's catchy title track is the centerpiece of the whole thing, in which, over an infectious hip-hop beat, Goffin describes several scenarios about desperate people living desperate lives, unable to escape, as if living a real-life tape loop. She muses on the cold, hard fact we all learn, how what we think is really important to us (like, say, writing record reviews?) sometimes just doesn't make any sense: "There's a lot going on, but it all adds up to nothing / Sometimes a Circle feels like a direction."
Equally enjoyable is "Instant Photo", a pastiche of modern pop, samples, loops, and a nifty, bluesy slide guitar riff, where Goffin expresses her wariness of excess fame and all its trappings, singing, "Making money is a waste of money honey / Making a living don't make a life." The piano-driven "I Can't Remember Why" is a lovely pop tune, one of those songs that strikes you as a potential hit, a fine combination of lyrical smarts and a memorable hook. The light latin influence on "Sleep With Me Instead" (featuring the songwriting help of Go-Go Charlotte Caffey) goes perfectly with Goffin's coquettish tale of an attempted seduction of a friend ("It's so fun to be your friend / Since she threw you out again"). "What If I Were Talking to Me" has a slinky, funky, descending bass riff that carries the song, while "Only Water" returns to guitar-folk basics and lilting harmonies. A cynic would say that "Saved by the Bell" is the usual girly piano ballad that Norah Jones will have us all even more sick of by the end of the year, but here, Goffin makes it work, with its gentle melody and her restrained performance.
The album hits a minor speed bump two-thirds of the way through, as three of its last five songs don't quite live up to the rest. They're not repulsive by any means, but "Just Bone and Breath", "Clicking to the Next Slide", and the brilliantly titled "What a Waste of a Perfectly Good Hotel Room" seem to lack the hooks the other songs possess. Lyrically, though, Goffin is nonetheless terrific, especially on "Clicking to the Next Slide", where she scores some points singing about a found View-Master (one of the coolest toys, ever), but lyrics are only half of the song (some might argue even less), and without a melody that grabs you, you're not left with much.
Best of all the tracks, though, is the lush "Light in Your Eyes", a song sounding so comfortably familiar, yet completely original, that it will have some listeners scrambling to their Burt Bacharach box sets, looking for the song they think Goffin has covered. Smooth, romantic, and above all, comfy, this song easily holds up against both Bacharach's, and Carole King's, output, which is no small feat. Contrarily, Sometimes a Circle closes on a brooding note on the John Parish collaboration "Quiet Anesthesia", Goffin's own recollection of her father's falling ill. Over spare guitar accompaniment and creepy organ, Goffin is at her most personal, as she sings, "I watched you my whole life / Giving in to myth of guilt / When all you did was stay up late / Dipping oreo's into milk." It's an unsettling way to end an album, concluding in a similar vein as Goldfrapp's Felt Mountain does, but it works. Life ain't always perfect, Goffin explains, and it sometimes takes an illness of a loved one to put things into proper perspective, which brings us back to the album's central theme.
Frankly, I'm surprised I wound up liking Sometimes a Circle more than I originally did. You have to give this album some time; plunk it in your CD player for a few days, and it'll eventually get its hooks in you. You'll soon realize we have a pretty darn talented songwriter amongst us, one who's smart, personal, and unpretentious, and in a time where pop music is more empty and soulless than it has ever been, that's really saying something. Mom and Dad should be very proud.