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Album Review : Houston: Commercial Sparkle, Artistic Fizz

June 01, 1987|ROBERT HILBURN | Times Pop Music Critic

Get the champagne ready.

Whitney Houston's second album arrives in stores Tuesday and the record industry will be raising toasts. The album, titled simply "Whitney," shapes up as another commercial blockbuster for the 23-year-old singer.

Rival executives will toast the foresight and dedication of Arista Records chief Clive Davis, who signed Houston when she was just 19 and has personally supervised her recording career.

Retailers will raise a glass to Houston herself, whose first album was the biggest selling debut ever by a solo artist: more than 14 million copies worldwide.

And radio programmers will be wanting to congratulate producers Narada Michael Walden, Michael Masser and Kashif for once again coming up with a series of highly accessible selections that will work on a variety of radio formats--numbers as irresistibly seductive as her earlier "Saving All My Love for You" and as sweepingly sentimental as "Greatest Love of All."

But excuse me if I don't join in the celebration.

Houston demonstrated on her 1985 debut that she has a sensational voice--enough control and range to be dazzling even when straddled with the frequently mediocre material of that album.

In view of the debut's phenomenal success, it seemed almost nitpicking to point out that Houston didn't assert much vocal character. She was still young, her backers pointed out quite correctly. The artistry would come in time, they added a bit more speculatively.

It's much too early to declare that now time is up on the question of Houston's artistry, but "Whitney"--for all its commercial sheen--does precious little to define the singer's vision. On that level, the album is a considerable disappointment.

Whether their latest release is interesting or not, great singers from Aretha Franklin to Barbra Streisand assert an inspiring individuality . . . a sense of absolute independence that separates them from the rest of the merely talented performers who go up and down the charts each year.

In helping extend Houston's stardom with the new album, Davis (the album's executive producer), Walden, Masser and Kashif have done little to flesh out her artistry. But it may not be their fault. Houston may simply not possess a gripping artistic vision. She doesn't write her own songs and she certainly didn't show any signs in concert of a maverick spirit waiting to be unleashed.

On stage and on the new album, Houston glides through a number of musical styles without telling us much about who she is or making us feel she is the least bit irreplaceable.

"Whitney" starts off well with "I Wanna Dance With Somebody," a deliciously raucous tune with a bit of the synthesizer underpinning and giddy zest of Cyndi Lauper's "Girls Just Want to Have Fun." And the album ends on a graceful, intimate note as Houston is joined by her mother, singer Cissy Houston, on "I Know Him So Well," a ballad from the musical "Chess."

Most of the material in between, however, is more serviceable than inspired--like a sampler of today's adult contemporary styles that all too frequently suggests \o7 formula\f7 at work\o7 .\f7

The songs range from ballads that raise questions without making you care about the answers ("Where Do the Broken Hearts Go" and "Where Are You") to hollow dance tracks that try to mix social comment with dance-floor vigor ("Love Will Save the Day").

Houston's stardom will be boosted most by "Didn't We Almost Have It All," a sweeping Masser-Will Jennings ballad with the kind of big, emotional finish that will make Liza and hundreds of other singers wish they had been given first crack at the song. I'll save my champagne for pop singers who don't add that overblown song to their repertoire.

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