With Anita Baker, you know pretty much what you're going to get. Never mind that she has been out of the musical picture for a decade -- yes, a decade -- far from the Quiet Storm movement she rode in on 20 years ago. With Anita Baker, she of the eight Grammys and the sold-out concerts, you're going to get the tried-and-true: The pixie cut is still perky cute; the mournful contralto still mourns, her sound still surfs the same smooth-jazz wave of swooping synthesizers punctuated by bursts of brass.
To that end, Baker's newest CD, "My Everything," doesn't disappoint. She serves up classic Baker, everything her fans have heard before and will hear again: the reliable, the relaxing and the romantic. Here, there's nothing to offend, but there's also nothing to inspire. What enchanted in 1986 now sounds rusty in 2004, leftovers from the dustbins of yesteryear. There's classic. And there's cliched.
It's a shame, really. Hers is one of the great voices, husky, rich and plush. And that can be a problem, because great voices -- Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey, Chaka Khan -- aren't frequently matched with quality music. Baker writes all her material, and she could have used a little intervention, as she is not the most deft of lyricists. Witness the opening stanza in her first single, "You're My Everything":
Got the sun in the morning
I got the moon at night
I got your arms around me, everything's alright
There are two bright spots on the album. "Like You Used to Do" is a regretful, mid-tempo meditation on lost love, performed with Babyface. "You're My Everything Revisited" teases the listener with what could have been, had she succumbed to the jazz influence of her new label, Blue Note: For 72 seconds, she scats and riffs as a piano swings around her melodies. The arrangement is spare, simple, humming along at a brisk enough pace to give Baker a good vocal workout.
One wishes Baker had taken a cue from her label mate, Cassandra Wilson, and taken all her creative energy, not to mention that languorous voice, and put them to good use. Experiment. Try some standards on for size, sing something a cappella. Change is good.
And Baker knows from change. It is what temporarily derailed her career. Life got in the way: Dying parents, growing kids, a marriage on the rocks and then suddenly revitalized. The music didn't come, she has said. Priorities had to be set, and she set them firmly at home, as she explains in the treacly "Men in My Life": "My time's in such demand / From sunrise down to sunset . . . / 'Cause the three men in my life / They're my husband and my sons yes."
These are the experiences that season an artist, give her something to say, flavor the music with a wisdom wrought from experience. At 46, Baker isn't the same person she was when she released her first solo album, "The Songstress," at 25. But she's got the same voice, and a voice like that deserves better material. So does the listener.