Whoever coined the phrase "Where there's smoke, there's fire" obviously had never heard Whitney Houston.
Cue up "I'm Your Baby Tonight" (Arista 8616), her first album in three years, which arrives in record stores today, and it sounds like this 27-year-old is really smoking -- almost every song is packed with sultry moans, note-bending asides, window-rattling gospel shouts, the works. Without a doubt, her performance shows all the hallmarks of great soul singing.
Except soul itself, that is. Somehow, the emotional fire that usually burns behind such singing never quite ignites for Houston. Though she obviously knows how to sell a melody (the title tune shows that much) and has no trouble navigating a state-of-the-art funk groove (as with the new jack "My Name Is Not Susan"), she's mainly going through the motions; there's absolutely nothing in her performance to suggest that she was even the slightest bit moved by these songs.
Which is particularly unfortunate, because "I'm Your Baby Tonight" is nothing if not an attempt to re-establish Houston as an R&B singer.
That Houston would recognize the need to revamp her image is significant; after all, she is one of the most successful recording artists of the rock era, having landed more consecutive chart-toppers than the Beatles or the Bee Gees (seven to their six). But because so many of her hits have been gloppy, big-budget ballads -- "The Greatest Love of All," "Didn't We Almost Have It All," "Where Do Broken Hearts Go" -- some fans feared that Houston was not just drifting into the middle of the road, but into premature irrelevance. TV's "In Living Color," for instance, lampooned her lack of funk with a parody titled "Rhythmless Nation."
In order to get back on track, Houston brought in the best. Not only does the new album feature four tracks produced by the red-hot team of L.A. and Babyface, whose client list also includes Bobby Brown, Paula Abdul and Pebbles, but she also recruited Stevie Wonder (with whom she sings "We Didn't Know") and Luther Vandross for a couple of tunes.
This infusion of funk helps some, but rarely adds more than an attractive surface. Although "Anymore" gets a nice groove going early on, that has more to do with the rhythm arrangement L.A. and Babyface have provided; as for the vocals, they're so completely subordinated to drums and bass that the song would have sounded the same no matter who sung it.
Far more problematic is the title tune, an aggressively insistent production so overloaded with vocal firepower that it almost beats the listener over the head, an approach that also mars the syrupy "After We Make Love."
That's not to say Houston misses the mark all around, of course. Her collaboration with Luther Vandross, "Who Do You Love," offers the album's most enjoyable performance, in part because of its buoyant beat but mostly because of its delightfully offhand singing. And "We Didn't Know," in which Houston merely follows the lead of duet partner Stevie Wonder, also has its pleasures, most of which stem from Wonder's deliciously idiosyncratic writing.
Taken as a whole, though, "I'm Your Baby Tonight" disappoints. Because Houston is unable to generate any sense of emotional empathy with these songs, she's left with an album that neither succeeds as a change of pace nor does much to maintain her reputation as a hit-maker.