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Oh, Whitney--for Heaven's Sake

POP MUSIC | RECORD RACK

*** WHITNEY HOUSTON, "The Preacher's Wife"soundtrack, Arista

November 24, 1996|Elysa Gardner

The remake of the 1947 film "The Bishop's Wife" obviously offered Houston more than just another high-profile acting credit. Playing a woman whose troubled marriage is saved with the help of an angel (Denzel Washington), Houston gets an opportunity to sing with a gospel choir--the ultimate credibility test for an R&B singer. "My beginnings are in gospel music," she reminds us in the liner notes. "This is where I'm most comfortable."

What this impeccably produced album makes clear, though, is that Houston's strong suit and her comfortable suit are two different outfits. She is first and foremost a pop diva--at that, the best one we have. No other female pop star--not Mariah Carey, not Celine Dion, not even Barbra Streisand--quite rivals Houston in her exquisite vocal fluidity and purity of tone, and her ability to infuse a lyric with mesmerizing melodrama.

There are several songs in the soundtrack that subscribe to the Houston formula of lush, sweeping ballads. "I Believe in You and Me" is a cheesy classic in the tradition of "I Will Always Love You," with an instantly familiar melody and a poignant, bolero-like arrangement. "You Were Loved" is a typically banal Diane Warren composition, but Houston sings the dickens out of it.

On more upbeat tunes such as Babyface's endearing "My Heart Is Calling" and "Somebody Bigger Than You and I," a delicious slice of gospel-flavored funk, Houston shows her soulful side with equal panache (even if she has a tendency to overdo the obligatory vocal gymnastics at times).

But in her six numbers leading the Georgia Mass Choir, Houston doesn't succeed quite so spectacularly. The superstar praises the Lord with obvious conviction and embellishes the choir's gorgeous ensemble singing with grace and generosity. Still, her soprano is a bit too pristine to be a great gospel instrument. On Kirk Franklin's "Joy," she seems to float above the choir like some faraway angel. Her shiny precision isn't quite right for the driving "I Go to the Rock," either, although here she's at least grounded somewhat by the song's earthy energy.

On "He's All Over Me," the legendary gospel singer Shirley Caesar duets with Houston, and Caesar's gritty, feral performance demonstrates why the younger icon sounds less authoritative than usual in this context. Houston's voice may be a gift from God, but that doesn't mean that her talents are best used in his service.

*

Albums are rated on a scale of one star (poor), two stars (fair), three stars (good) and four stars (excellent).

* TimesLine 808-8463

To hear excerpts from the albums reviewed, call TimesLine and press * and the artist's corresponding four-digit code. "The Preacher's Wife" *5711

In 805 area code, call (818) 808-8463.

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