Ruben Studdard is in the mood for love on his latest album, Love Is. This is the 2003 American Idol champ's fourth album, and his first independent release for Hickory Records. Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis were enlisted, among others, to produce the silky smooth R&B collection. Studdard's delivery has grown even more subtle and refined over the years. Though his once widespread audience may have dwindled, his talent remains for those willing to listen.
Some of the strongest material on Love Is are the well chosen cover songs. Extreme's "More Than Words," a song often maligned as saccharine and wimpy, shines here with Studdard's tender handling of the melody. The arrangement is kept simple, allowing him to really make the song his own. The Beatles' classic "The Long and Winding Road" is another winner, with instrumental backing that never gets in the way of the yearning vocal. Written by Susaye Greene and Stevie Wonder, but made famous by Michael Jackson on Off the Wall, "I Can't Help It" is a bit less successful in Studdard's hand. Not so much due to his vocal, which is fine, but a rather limp production.
Best of all is a stellar interpretation of Kris Kristofferson's "For the Good Times." While clearly based on Al Green's 1972 version, Studdard nonetheless turns in his finest vocal of the album. The organic instrumental support, particularly from drummer Davyd Houston, makes this song stand out. The album as a whole would have benefited from more of this "live band" sound. Too many synthetic drum beats drag down songs that should sound more natural.
Studdard is co-credited as a songwriter on several songs, the best of which is the uplifting ballad "My Love Is a Rock." Another strong original is "We Got Love (That's Enough)." While the song itself is fairly generic, a problem that plagues the weaker material throughout, it is saved by a powerful vocal. The album sounds too safe, without much energy or adventure in the musicianship. Studdard, as good as he consistently sounds, seems just on the verge of pushing himself even further. But unfortunately the production is a bit lifeless much of the time.
Ruben Studdard debuted in 2003 with Soulful, a Platinum certified album. His sophomore effort, the gospel album I Need an Angel, was certified Gold in 2004. But The Return in 2006, despite selling nearly a quarter million, would be his last with J Records. American Idol alumni are frequently dumped as soon as they show signs of waning popularity. What's encouraging is when an artist like Studdard is able to forge ahead independently, even if the resulting sales are a mere shadow of what a major label was capable of tallying. Love Is didn't have much of a chart impact, but fans of contemporary R&B would do well to give it a try.