No sooner had Mariah Carey's debut hit the charts last year than the comparisons began. Some were superficial, for instance likening Carey's eight-octave range to the stratospheric soprano the late Minnie Riperton.
But others were more telling -- particularly those that drew parallels between the young singer's approach and the pop/soul sound that made Whitney Houston a superstar. Could Carey be out to replace Houston as America's reigning diva?
Maybe so, but if she succeeds it won't be as a Whitney wanna-be.
In fact, Carey's second album, "Emotions" (Columbia 47980, arriving in record stores today), is a pointed departure from her slick, pop-conscious debut. Although the musical territory is much the same, its overall sound is leaner, without the overblown arrangements that made "Mariah Carey" seem so Houston-esque.
"Emotions" is hardly a drastic departure, however. Indeed, it maintains much the same emphasis on soulful grooves, catchy choruses and Carey's gospel-inflected delivery. But by cutting down on the studio sweetening, this album lets more of Carey's natural flavor come through, and that lends these songs an unexpected freshness.
That's not to say the album's sound is completely original, mind you. "Make It Happen," for instance, is built over a groove that owes not a little to D-Train's "Keep On," while the chorus to "So Blessed" is strikingly reminiscent of "Love Hurts." But Carey's songs -- and, yes, she had a hand in writing each of the album's 10 tracks -- are never completely imitative, for the singer always seems to add just enough of a twist to keep them from sounding like copies.
Take, as an example, the title tune. Although the rhythm arrangement, assembled by David Cole and Robert Clivilles of C+C Music Factory fame, seems to go for an Earth, Wind and Fire groove, the song nonetheless goes its own way, slipping easily into a Philly soul feel for the bridge before letting Carey squeak out the closing chorus.
It's hardly accidental, of course, that Carey should draw so xTC heavily on older R&B influences, for there's something genuinely traditional about the music she makes. It's not nostalgia, quite, but it definitely shows its respect for the past.
Perhaps the most obvious example would be "If It's Over," an end-of-the-affair song she treats as gospel, complete with churchy organ and her own overdubbed choir. Yet as strong as those gospel overtones are, they aren't the only older style she's confident enough to appropriate. In fact, her rewrite of Russ Freeman's jazzy "The Wind" actually sounds more traditional than the original.
By giving her music such a firm grounding in gospel, soul and jazz, Carey's "Emotions" takes on a depth few pop divas have managed. And that, frankly, is the mark of a true original.