One of the downsides of celebrity is that it makes people look at you funny. Instead of being known for what you did and how you did it, suddenly you become seen in terms of your looks, your quirks and your social contacts. And while that doesn't necessarily diminish the public's appreciation of your real work, it can make it hard for them to remember what brought you fame in the first place.
Take Mariah Carey. When her self-titled debut popped up in 1990, all most listeners knew about her was her name and the sound of her voice. Now that she's a star, however, she's accorded the full People magazine treatment, so that even those who don't hear her on the radio know all about her chalk-squeak upper register, her fondness for tight, black dresses, and her recent marriage to the head of her record company.
So it's to be expected that most of the talk about Carey's third album, "Music Box" (Columbia 53205, arriving in stores today), will focus on the fluff -- how she looks in the "Dreamlover" video, whether "Now That I Know" (with lyrics like "My friends they told me to leave you") is about her husband, and so on. Trouble is, all this trivia overlooks the most important fact about Carey: That she really knows how to sell a melody.
Cue up any track on "Music Box," and the evidence is overwhelming. It hardly matters whether the song is loud or soft, slow or fast, straight or funky -- Carey's singing invariably cuts to the melodic heart of the song, adding just enough flourish to goose the rhythm or enhance the emotional content.
Granted, it's not the flashiest singing you'll ever hear. Although Carey often takes liberties with the melodic line -- note the elaborate ornamentation on "I've Been Thinking About You" -- what she does is nothing compared to the intricate arabesques of singers like Mary J. Blige. And then, her most daring displays are usually set against a backing chorus, ensuring that someone somewhere is delivering an unvarnished version of the melody.
Even her trademark forays into the stratosphere seem constrained this time around. Sure, you can hear a few squeals in the intro to "Dreamlover," but after that she downplays them, using her extreme upper register only for a wordless hook that might as well have been played on a synthesizer (and may leave some listeners thinking it was).
But that sort of function-first thinking is typical of Carey here, and while her low-key approach may not provide much grist for the gossip mills, it definitely adds to the album's listenability. By taking the direct approach to "Dreamlover," for example, she underscores the song's breezy melody and insinuating pulse so deftly that it takes on all the buoyant charm of a Philly soul oldie; likewise, the lean and focused reading she gives "Now That I Know" merely adds momentum to the breathless propulsion of the Clivilles and Cole rhythm track.
One of the reasons this works so well is that by playing it understated, Carey is keeping the music true to her own vision. ** Just listen to the way she plays up the gospel influences on the album. Where another singer might have been tempted to turn "Anytime You Need a Friend" into a full-blown sanctified sing-out, Carey and producer Walter Afanasieff use the gospel harmonies on the chorus as contrast for Carey's pop soul vocal.
pTC Likewise, the churchy keyboards and choir on "Just to Hold You Once Again" simply provide an emotional framework for Carey's performance, one which leaves room for her to raise the rafters without requiring that she do so with every verse.
Tellingly, the album's weakest moment comes when she doesn't try to make her own way through the music. The song is "Without You," and Carey presents it pretty much the same way Harry Nilsson did. Trouble is, all that does is point up the differences between their voices -- a comparison that doesn't work in her favor.
Still, one dud out of 10 is an impressive average these days. And while maintaining that standard may not make her headline material for the tabloids, it certainly should be no cause for complaint among pop fans.
You can hear four excerpts from "Music Box" on SUNDIAL, The Baltimore Sun's telephone information service. You will need a touch-tone phone. Call (410) 783-1800 (268-7736 in Anne Arundel County) and punch in the four-digit code 6004.