Thursday, September 03, 2009

Oh, Whitney…

By Javier E. David

Immediately after playing the final selection of Whitney Houston’s new album, “
I Look to You“, your reviewer found himself immediately possessed by an unusual, almost irresistible urge. What exactly was that impulse, readers might ask?

That would have been to play various selections in Whitney Houston’s extensive back catalog of hits: the better to rewind the clock and savor what was once the most polished, powerful singing voices of her generation. If “I Look to You”, the album being billed as Ms. Houston’s comeback vehicle, is any indication, that voice may well be lost to music aficionados everywhere, never to be heard from again.

It’s doubtful that the diminution of her skills has been lost on Ms. Houston herself. Her first studio album in seven years has crept in under the radar - little advance buzz, a tepid title track that received modest airplay (peaking at #19 on the Billboard R&B singles chart), and an overall dearth of multi-media marketing/public relations blitzing befitting a Grammy-award winning diva with numerous accolades. There are currently no plans for a tour, surely a welcome development given Ms. Houston’s recent difficulties performing live.

Ms. Houston’s various personal travails and turbulent marriage to R&B singer Bobby Brown need not be completely rehashed here, though they are worthy of mention given the likely toll they’ve exerted on her career and voice. Certainly she deserves credit for overcoming substance abuse and a dysfunctional marriage, a testament to the inner strength expected of major talents such as hers. Like her forerunners, Ms. Houston lays claim to a compelling personal story filled with mountains, rivers and valleys aplenty.

All of which set the narrative for “I Look to You.” The album is slickly produced, featuring an all-star cast of collaborators and producers (R. Kelly, Alicia Keys, Swizz Beats, just to name a few), yet comes off sounding pedestrian and unsatisfying. When compared to Ms. Houston’s previous high-octave ballads such as “I Will Always Love You”, or “The Greatest Love of All”, the title track is short and underwhelming, as if it were rushed out of the studio, or as if the artist herself was attempting to beat some self-imposed deadline.

Other songs on the album that ought to showcase Ms. Houston’s glass-shattering octaves end up sounding minor-key and bubble-gum. “I Didn’t Know My Own Strength,” is an ostensibly poignant tribute to the singer’s ability to transcend her difficulties. The song’s heart is in the right place, but it wants for the blow-the-doors-off-the-barn vocal acrobatics that put Ms. Houston on the map. In the R. Kelly produced “Salute,” the singer declares herself a “soldier girl” who’s “made it”, but the song lacks for emotional resonance.

Which brings us full circle to Ms. Houston’s dismayingly deflated vocal abilities. Listening to the songs on the new album, one can’t help but notice the difference from bygone years. This is underscored by the fallowness of her singing career over the last several years that should have rested her vocal cords to some extent. The once gossamer voice now sounds frayed and rough-hewn. Given the modern-day necromancy of music production, it’s hard not to wonder what the real extent of the damage is, and how hard Arista’s sound engineering team had to work to buff out the flaws in her raw voice.

All that said, it’s a common aphorism that the world loves a comeback. And for the most part, divas - a superlative we are likely to hear ad-nauseum over the next few weeks - experience them on a regular basis.

Mariah Carey endured a few years of melodrama, released a transitional album that was declared Dead on Arrival along with her career, only to bounce back with a multi-platinum smash in “The Emancipation of Mimi.” It’s not inconceivable that “I Look to You” turns out to be the bridge to something bigger for Ms. Houston, and she certainly has a devoted fan base rooting for her. But in the pantheon of artistic comeback albums, “I Look to You” can at best be described as a footnote.

Best of the lot:

“Worth It”
“Million Dollar Bill”
“Like I Never Left”

Javier E. David is a native New Yorker and a contributor to He writes about various subjects including popular culture, entertainment, business, finance and public policy for sites such as and He is a U.S. Army veteran who has worked on Wall Street and as a reporter for the international news agency Reuters. Fluent in Spanish, Javier is an avid sports fan and enjoys literature, music (especially independent hip-hop and soul), movies, good food and wine, and is also a self-confessed comic-book geek.

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