Bri Blahg… What The Hell Am I Doing Listening To The New Whitney Record

3 09 2009

by Brian Phillips (@BrianBlahg)

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Whitney Houston's "I Look To You"

Full disclosure. I’ve never been a fan of Whitney Houston. I won’t argue her talent. I just always thought her material was two dimensional pablum; bland product for easy to tears slow dancers.

Several years ago Whitney Houston ducked into her mansion, pulled the blinds, and disappeared. Pop music moved on. Remembering what a fresh faced young pop phenom she was, the tabloid stuff never computed. Still, there it was and as we all know, after awhile it doesn’t mean much whether it was all true or not. Whitney Houston had become a punch line.

With the stories yesterday of Houston’s labored performance on Good Morning America I figured I’d give this album a listen. On “I Look To You” we hear a different Whitney. Those once soaring young pipes are gone. In their place is something…. not better necessarily, but more human and compelling. One can literally hear the smoke. The Alicia Keys co-written “Million Dollar Bill” is actually a pretty good song, buoyed by a righteous flubbery bass groove, and some sweet little organ fills. Houston sounds down right girly on the track, only… “bad girly.” “Nothin But Love” sounds Euro dance. Her voice on the track is fiesty and in control. Not bad. “Call You Tonight” is a smart pop number with some swell slide guitar touches. Three tracks in, and I have to say I’m shocked.  From there though it’s not much hit and mostly miss.

“I Look To You,” written by fellow tabloid creature R. Kelly, is boilerplate 80’s Whitney and it really doesn’t work any better for me now than it did then. This sort of schmaltz sounds like it should be playing over the closing credits of Mannequin III or something. Blah. Akon guests on “Like I Never Left.” It’s the most contemporary thing I’ve heard on the record, and bland too.

Out of left field an old Leon Russell tune “A Song For You” is pulled out and dusted off. Dating back to 1970, Danny Hathaway recorded it the following year. In the hands of the Stargate production team the song morphs into a pulsing disco track. I’ll say this, Whitney sounds like she’s having fun with it.

“I Didn’t Know My Own Strength” was penned by song doctor Diane Warren. I made it through about ten seconds of “Lost sight of my dreams/I thought it would be the end of me.” “Had no hope to…. thought I would break” etc…. and that was all I could take. Sorry. I swear Warren writes this shit with those refrigerator poetry magnet sets.

And that’s where I quit. The fact that I made it this far should tell you something. Parts of this album, the moments where she sounds invested in the material, you can hear it. Any record designed for a mass audience as this one though will, by its nature, be rife with cliches. Considering where she’s been, it isn’t bad, and much better than expected.

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