Thursday, September 3, 2009

HOUSTON, WE HAVE A (SLIGHT) PROBLEM

I was hoping, praying I wouldn't have to go here.

But here I go.

I wanted to LOVE Whitney Houston's so-called comeback album, I Look To You, which was released in the U.S. on Monday (just in time for 2010 Grammy consideration). I wanted to live for it. I wanted it to just slay me with smashing hooks and fierce ruling diva vocals.

But at the end, I'm still standing. If only the entire album were so durable. As much-hyped returns go, Whitney's is hardly DOA, but it does occasionally -- and specifically, on the "big" Whitney ballads -- roll over and play dead. Song for song, it's no worse than any of Whitney's early superstar-era albums (which, if memory serves, stunning vocals aside, were never all that great), and if the wear and tear on her once-impeccable voice weren't so evident, more of them might even soar. But as is, they only occasionally reach cruising altitude. "Million Dollar Bill," the first official single, and particularly the electro-tinged "For The Lovers," the album's best song, are as listenable as anything on the radio today and make me wish Whitney had recorded a thoroughly modern beat-driven album intended to pit her diva to diva against the Beyonces and Rihannas of pop and R&B. But the reluctance to go too 2009 puts the focus too squarely on vocal technique, stopping the uptempo cuts from approaching the euphoric heights of "It's Not Right, But It's Okay" (possibly Whitney's crowning achievement, from 1998's My Love Is Your Love).

On the ballads, she dare not reach for those thrilling, sky-high "I Have Nothing" moments, which is the main problem. I found that the slightly ragged shadings in Whitney's voice on her last studio album, 2002's Just Whitney, made it a slightly more interesting instrument, but most of the songs on that album weren't built for powerhouse singing, so they didn't suffer from the slight vocal decline. Don't get me wrong: Whitney remains a great vocalist, and she could sing circles around most of today's leading R&B divas, but with the exception of My Love Is Your Love, she's always lacked true grit. Listening to "Salute," an excellent R. Kelly-written-and-produced track with a mesmerizing shuffle beat and do-you-believe-in-life-after-love lyrics, I kept wondering what Mary J. Blige would have made of it, how she would have ripped into a line like "And you think that your shit don't stink/Well, it do" with pure bitchy gusto.

The poppier ballads that are intended to remind us of Whitney's power era suffer most from the dip in vocal prowess, especially "I Didn't Know My Own Strength," an inspirational rise-like-a-phoenix-from-the-flames number that back-in-the-day Whitney would have used to raise both the roof and the bar for her multi-platinum potential. Sadly, here she undermines the song's message by turning in a performance on which she sounds, frankly, kind of exhausted.

My critical carping aside, go ahead and call it a comeback: HITS Daily Double, which gauges daily albums sales, predicts I Look For You will sell around 275,000 copies in its first week of release, good for a No. 1 debut. Apparently, there are still a lot of Whitney fans out there. But will they still love her enough tomorrow -- or next week -- to make this comeback stick?

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