Toni's second doesn't shout Review: Braxton's new album has the remarkable voice of the debut, but many of these melodies don't sing.

June 18, 1996|By J.D. Considine | J.D. Considine,SUN POP MUSIC CRITIC

It's easy enough to be seduced by Toni Braxton's singing. Her voice is a delight, with a smooth, supple upper register and a lustrous lower end so dark and sweet that it's the aural equivalent of caramel. Even better, she uses that voice to full advantage, bringing an awesome intensity to power ballads while making the quiet songs seem as intimate as a whispered conversation.

But however enticing her performance may be, it's hard to fall for an album if you're not smitten by the songs. So even though Braxton's singing is as alluring as ever, "Secrets" (LaFace 73008 26020, arriving in stores today) isn't as immediately loveable as her debut.

Instead, it settles for merely being likable. Slip the album into your CD player, and you'll have no trouble warming to its suave sound and familiar-feeling grooves -- just don't expect a lot of heat. Because even though some songs throw sparks, it's unlikely that the album as a whole will light your fire the way "Toni Braxton" did.

That's a bit surprising, given the caliber of collaborators Braxton has. Not only were six selections produced by Babyface, but R. Kelly, David Foster and the team of Antonio "L.A." Reid and Tony Rich handled other tracks. Add in songwriting by Dianne Warren and Jon B., plus a cameo by Kenny G, and "Secrets" looks less like a sophomore release than an all-star project.

Granted, the best songs really do live up to expectations. "You're Makin Me High," the current single, is a steamingly sultry affair, all slow-grinding groove and lubricious lyrics, served up by Braxton in her best come-hither voice. That throaty purr she applies to opening verses is itself worth the price of the album, but the lithe harmony vocals Babyface builds into the chorus are what ultimately reels the listener in.

Then there's "Let It Flow," a languorous, mid-tempo Babyface ballad in the vein of "When Will I See You Again." It's a remarkable piece of writing, and between its quietly chiming guitars and the subtle drama of its tension-and-release melody, it would be hard to imagine the singer who wouldn't sound great singing it. But Braxton does more than deliver the song -- she becomes it, molding her voice so completely to the contours of the tune that it's hard to tell where the melody ends and she begins.

But even all-star teams have off days. "How Could an Angel Break My Heart" looks like a winner on paper, boasting a great title, music and lyrics by Babyface and Braxton, and sax obbligatos by Kenny G. Unfortunately, the parts are more impressive than the whole. Despite a lush, Disney-ish string arrangement and some frankly gorgeous harmonic twists, the slowly arcing melody never ends up going anywhere; if it weren't for the clever catch-phrase, you'd never notice when the chorus arrives. By the end, it seems less a song than an excuse for Braxton and G to exchange airy improvisations.

Without a strong melody to work from, even the greatest singer is going to have a hard time making an impression, and that's the problem with more than a few songs here. It's no big deal that "Talking In His Sleep" tends to tunelessness, since its mostly spoken lyric doesn't leave a lot of room for catchy choruses.

Other selections are just as melodically unmemorable without meaning to be, and that is a problem. So despite Braxton's best efforts, "Find Me a Man" never quite finds its groove, and the muted "In the Late of the Night" ends the album not with a bang but a whisper. Still, though the balance ultimately comes out in Braxton's favor -- the elegantly funky "Come Over Here," gospel-tinged "I Don't Want To" and Isley-esque "Why Should I Care" outweigh the bland "There's No Me Without You" and the overblown "Unbreak My Heart" -- it's hard not to come away from the album wanting more. Because liking "Secrets" just isn't as much fun as loving it would have been.

"Secrets"

To hear excerpts from Toni Braxton's latest release, "Secrets," call Sundial at (410) 783-1800 and enter the four-digit code 6112. For other local Sundial numbers, see the Sundial directory on Page 2A.

Pub Date: 6/18/96

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