WITH HER PLATINUM-PLUS debut album, Whitney Houston entered the Big Leagues in a single bound, and her second LP, "Whitney," debuted on the Billboard charts at No. 1 -- a first for a female vocalist. So her career's got "legs" and -- as can be seen on the album cover -- her bellybutton is no slouch either.
There's been lots of critical blather that "Whitney" isn't as strong as the debut LP. Nonsense. The frothy first record was a pop crazy quilt, a relatively soulless cut-and-paste affair involving umpteen producers who blueprinted the songs for maximum radio-video impact. This time out, it sounds like Houston herself has had some input; her voice sounds stronger still and the songs are varied but so consistent she could garner 10 Top 10s out of a field of 11. The crossover queen carefully provides something for everyone -- upbeat dance pop, "Quiet Storm"-type ballads, a couple of well-chosen R&B covers and even a show tune.
Narada Michael Walden produced, arranged and played (or programmed) drums on most of the good stuff, notably the gorgeous ballad "Just the Lonely Talking Again." But Houston might do well to lose schmaltzmeister Michael Masser's number next time -- his syrupy "Didn't We Almost Have It All" and "You're Still My Man" are the weakest and most derivative here.
While the songs and arrangements are infernally infectious, Houston seems to be focusing on singing them perfectly, so a song like Isleys' "For The Love Of You," which should be delivered with swooning abandon, comes out technically pristine but only perky at heart. Houston makes her stongest showing on an album-closing duet with mom Cissy Houston, "I Know Him So Well" from the British musical "Chess." Mother's lived-in powerhouse voice gives daughter something to live up to and could be a harbinger of her next step -- her next LP is rumored to be a gospel set.
Opening for Houston at Merriweather this weekend will be Jonathan Butler, a young South African-born singer/guitarist who founded the Jive Record label. On his second record, Butler offers quite a value -- 16 songs on a double disc, cassette or CD for the price of one. But Butler might well have saved some vinyl and opted instead for more variety. Much of Butler's jazz-inflected, painstakingly polished pop sounds are wearyingly familiar -- the ballads ape labelmate Billy Ocean or the young Stevie Wonder; the guitar-based instrumentals bear a discomfiting similarity to George Benson.
WHITNEY HOUSTON -- "Whitney" (Arista 8405).
JONATHAN BUTLER -- "Jonathan Butler" (Jive 1032).
Both appearing Saturday and Sunday at Merriweather Post Pavilion.