Whitney Houston owns one of the best voices of her generation. Her soprano is so strong that it seems to expand even as it relaxes; it picks up luxurious overtones even as it glides thrillingly through the dips and turns of a melody. It shows flashes of the full-throttle gospel wailing of her youth, yet it has the friendly tunefulness of universal pop. For all this, though, Houston has yet to make a satisfying album.
She comes closer on her third attempt, "I'm Your Baby Tonight" (Arista), but still falls short, and one has to start asking if she will ever fulfill her tremendous potential. The new album, her first in three years, matches her with her best collaborators yet and finally makes a convincing case that she can sing R&B dance numbers. The same old problem persists, however: No matter how good she sounds, Houston seems to connect only with the most sentimental and superficial aspects of her material.
Granted, most of the songs on her first two albums were nothing but superficial sentimentality. "I'm Your Baby Tonight," though, represents a dramatic improvement in songwriters and producers. Lightweights Jermaine Jackson and Kashif have been banished, and schlockmeister Michael Masser is limited to one song; in their place are such formidable talents as Stevie Wonder, Luther Vandross and the team of L.A. Reid and Babyface.
Reid and Babyface produced four of the 11 songs, including Eric Foster White's "My Name Is Not Susan," a funky slice of new jack swing about a lover who slips up and addresses the singer by another woman's name. Houston nails the funk rhythms right on the head and she wails with exciting power, but she completely misses the drama. Instead of evoking the hurt and resentment of such a situation, the best Houston can summon is an offended teenage pout. The album's best song is "We Didn't Know," Stevie Wonder's richly melodic, polyrhythmic description of platonic friends becoming lovers. Wonder's half of the duet vocal captures the astonishment and awkwardness of the circumstances, but Houston sails along as if sexual boundaries could be crossed without a second thought.
The three songs written and produced by Reid and Babyface -- including the album's first single, "I'm Your Baby Tonight" -- are inspired imitations of Michael and Janet Jackson's fluffy dance hits, all squealing libido and jackhammer beats. What they lack is the challenging edge of the Jackson siblings' best work on "Thriller" and "Control." Masser and Narada Michael Walden produced three more eye-glazing, middle-of-the-road pop ballads of the sort that have given Houston her biggest hits. The album's most successful performance comes on "Who Do You Love," a catchy, old-fashioned soul tune written and produced by Vandross, who gets Houston to loosen up and sound more spontaneous than ever.
Houston presents an interesting analogy to Aretha Franklin, another gospel-trained soul singer with a once-in-a-generation voice. As Houston has, Franklin spun her wheels early in her career, wasting her potential on corn-syrup pop during her years at Columbia Records. There's one crucial difference, however. Franklin had little commercial success initially, so she had the incentive to keep searching for a deeper, richer sound. Houston, by contrast, has known nothing but success in her career and thus has been encouraged to pursue music that only squanders her immense gift.
Caron Wheeler: 'UK Blak'
The best thing about last year's overrated Soul II Soul debut album was Caron Wheeler's powerhouse soul singing. Britain's Wheeler (who had earlier sung with Elvis Costello and Howard Jones as part of the female harmony group Afrodiziak) has now released her debut solo album, "UK Blak" (EMI USA), without any help from her former employers. Nonetheless, it has the trademarks of the first Soul II Soul album: strong singing, ingenious production and mediocre songwriting.
The Soul II Soul stew of house music, hip-hop, pop-jazz, reggae and gospel is stirred up again here, and Wheeler has the vocal chops to put any of these ingredients across. Whenever she gets an actual melody to sink her teeth into, as on the Steely and Clevie-produced reggae tune "Proud," she displays a voice of impressive warmth and persuasion. Unfortunately, that's not too often.
The 13 tracks feature 11 different producers and 18 different songwriters. Rather than producing diversity, this attempt at creativity by committee produces a depressing homogeneity as one bass-dominated groove blurs into the next. Song structure and distinctive melodies seem to have been the last thing on the minds of Wheeler's producers, and that's a strange way to approach a singer's solo album.
Brenda Russell: 'Kiss Me With the Wind'
Brenda Russell has been a music pro for more than 15 years, singing harmonies for Elton John, Bette Midler and Barbra Streisand and writing songs for Roberta Flack, Chaka Khan and Earth, Wind & Fire. She won a Grammy nomination for her 1988 hit "Piano in the Dark," and Oleta Adams had a recent hit with Russell's "Get Here." So it's no surprise that Russell's sixth solo album, "Kiss Me With the Wind" (A&M), is marked primarily by its professional craftmanship.
Russell may not have a special voice like Houston or Wheeler, but she's too smart to mess up her album with bad lyrics, tuneless grooves or sappy production. She writes the same kind of pop-soul love songs that have made Ashford & Simpson stars, and she's a much better lyricist than Nick Ashford even if she's not quite the singer Valerie Simpson is.
With six of the 11 songs clocking in at 4:30-plus, Russell and her co-producers (Narada Michael Walden, Andre Fischer and Larry Williams) let these pop confections run on too long, and Russell's songwriting and vocals often suffer from the faceless adaptability of a pro used to satisfying other clients. The best songs, though, are clever and catchy enough to justify the triumph of craftmanship over inspiration. The funky "Stupid Love" is a witty look at romantic obsession; "Dinner with Gershwin" (a 1987 Donna Summer hit) is a fresh approach to romantic reverie; and "Drive My Car ('Til Sunset)" is a solid "freedom of the road" song.