Friday, August 28, 2009

Somewhere In The World Bret Easton Ellis Is Weeping

Some have said it's the comeback album of all history of recorded music. I thnk if I remember correctly, Andy Cohen, host on tv's Bravo has said it's a gay's wet dream, her handlers have her packed up tight too. Whitney Houston has a new album. Houston is being advertised for Oprah's season opening interview. The interview of the know Oprah is going to ask all the big questions. Chicago Tribune writer Greg Kot is not so convinced...

"More famous lately for tabloid misadventure and an ill-fated marriage to singer Bobby Brown, Whitney Houston is back doing what she does best: Singing.

Music industry executives, in dire need of some superstar-level sales, are no doubt doing cartwheels in anticipation of Houston’s first studio album in seven years, “I Look to You” (Arista), out Tuesday. It reunites her with vaunted hitmaker Clive Davis, her executive producer and mentor since she became an instant star in the mid-‘80s.

Since then she has sold 170 million albums, singles and videos, and paved the way for two generations of big-ballad singers. As the music industry entered its most lucrative era, becoming a $15 billion machine by the end of the ‘90s, Houston was at the forefront, a booming voice with an immaculate lineage (daughter of Cissy Houston, cousin of Dionne Warwick, god-daughter of Aretha Franklin) who crossed over from hit albums to hit movies (“The Bodyguard,” “Waiting to Exhale”). Her blend of vocal acrobatics and carefully manicured pop anticipated the careers of divas from Mariah Carey to Christina Aguilera, as well as anyone who’s ever auditioned for “American Idol.”

Yet Houston has never made a truly great album, the soul sucked out of her gospel-trained voice by shallow songs and sterile production. Her career was guided every step of the way by the heavy hand of Davis, a record executive whose reputation as a pop svengali is founded on his ability to mold talent into a marketable commodity. With Houston, he built not just a celebrity but a formula: plugging Houston into a variety of pop formats with various of-the-moment producers. Her big voice conquered all. Then she drifted away.

After years of erratic behavior in which drugs took hold of her life and her marriage to Brown dissolved in full view of the public (thanks to an ill-advised reality TV show), Houston was persuaded by Davis to re-enter the studio a couple years ago. “I Look to You” is an attempt to reassure everyone --- her fans, radio programmers, the industry that depended on her for so long – that she’s back as good as ever, but it’s a different era: sales of recorded music are in a free fall, and Houston has become an afterthought or a punch line. She can still sing – but how well?

“I Look to You” begins promisingly. The first track, “Million Dollar Bill,” glides in on a walking bass line that sounds perfect for step dancing. Houston can sound a bit stiff when harnessed by ill-fitting songs or production. But on “Million Dollar Bill,” she sounds almost frisky. The tune, coproduced by Swizz Beatz and Alicia Keys, almost swings.

It’s all downhill from that peak moment, with a couple of key exceptions. Despite the machinations of top-tier producers and songwriters such as R. Kelly, Diane Warren, Akon, Stargate and David Foster, nothing else feels quite as elegantly ebullient. Nor does she ever cut loose; at times it feels as though Houston is just a pretty ornament on her producers’ tracks. In the past, her voice was big enough to tower over lackluster material, but no more.

Houston gravitates toward songs that apply a we-shall-overcome universality to her personal struggles, a survivor with head held high and “Nothin’ But Love” for even her detractors. The title song, written by Kelly, serves as the album’s centerpiece, the latest in a long line of slow-build ballads that has defined her career. Though Houston sounds surprisingly thin as the song begins in a lower register, she gains strength as she begins firing off high, hummingbird trills. She’s comfortable in this pseudo-gospel mode, and with her great control and technical polish, it’s a fine vehicle for punctuating her comeback, a show-stopper in the making. Can a performance at the Super Bowl or some other nationally televised mega-event be far behind?

Otherwise, this is Houston on auto-pilot (though, thankfully, not on Auto-Tune) as she dutifully glides through a couple of Akon tracks, a ponderous Warren power ballad and another Kelly tune, “Salute.” The Swedish Stargate team turns Leon Russell’s ballad “A Song for You” into a disco stomp. It’s not completely successful, but at least it tries to shake up the formula.

Step back from the competent but hardly inspiring quality of most of this material, and another theme emerges: That Houston is making music again at all is something of a small victory. Sure, she rides the production because her voice isn’t what it used to be. But then neither is the music industry that she once ruled. "

Related Links:

1) You can listen to her first hit here. Actually, it will for sure fill up the dance floors...especially in Boystowns around the world. I'll be there dancing with the boys too. The song "Nothin But Love" is very very good. Gave me chills. I think this album is going to give a huge emotional delivery to Houstons' fans. I think it's a better album than it first appears and it's going to sell like crazy.
2) Los Angeles Times "Pop And Hiss"


mister anchovy said...

I kind of missed the train on this performer the first time around. Nothing I heard from her interested me much, so I listened to polkas instead. I've read that she's looking healthier though. Good for her.

Malcolm said...

I am looking forward to hearing this album when I get a copy this week. I'm planning on featuring one of her new songs on my show this Friday.

Although I wasn't a huge fan of Whitney's during her prime, I have become a booster since she fell from grace. That's because I've always had an affinity for the underdog.

Candy Minx said...

Mister Anchovy, I thought you would appreciate the humour reference to American Psycho.

Malcolm, I was not a fan of Houston either...not my style of music...but I have this weird thing too...where she is an underdog figure too. I kind of got more interested in the last few years. I've listened to the album a couple of times now...and the lyrics are provocative and poignant especially regarding their possible significance to her own story arc. I was very moved. And I enjoyed her voice. After readign a few rviews I thought it might be "blown" but there is a depth and warmth to it now that I didn't feel before.