- The Washington Times - Monday, August 31, 2009

Whitney Houston
I Look to You
Arista

For the most part, people used to listen to Whitney Houston albums for one reason: that singular, gospel-trained mezzo-soprano; the voice that launched 1,000 “American Idol” wannabes. But since the singer’s descent into pop music purgatory this decade, many are tuning into her latest release to hear something else — signs of a comeback.

Happily, it appears that “I Look to You,” the pop diva’s first album in seven years, marks the end of her “crack is whack” era. Ex-husband and reality-show co-star Bobby Brown is out of the picture. Miss Houston looks healthier than she has in years. Her instrument seems fairly sound, and this new release isn’t bad (more than we can say for her last, 2002’s “Just Whitney”).

“I Look to You” reunites Miss Houston with her mentor and svengali, music mogul Clive Davis, and enlists a cadre of modern-day hit-makers, like R. Kelly and Akon. The disc’s 11 tracks bounce from up-tempo retro to breezy, contemporary R&B, from soulful techno to lyrical, hip-hop-tinged soul — and, of course, no Whitney Houston CD would be complete without power ballads.

The songwriters fashion a protagonist who’s able to acknowledge past troubles, if abstractly. Miss Houston sings of “regret,” “pain” and “winter storms,” but she also boasts of her power to move beyond it all. In the tune “Nothin’ But Love,” the chanteuse triumphantly chants, “Ain’t got nothin’ but love … to anyone who tried to hate on me … to all my exes that done wronged me, stepped on me, can’t hold me down.”

Yet despite all the strength she references in the lyrics, the songs themselves don’t have the force of Miss Houston’s best prior efforts. This new disc is a solid attempt to get the voice back on charts and into hearts (and maybe win a few Grammys), but there’s nothing here with the explosive, pure pop energy of “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” (from 1987’s “Whitney”), the seething, contemporary bite of “Heartbreak Hotel” (1998’s “My Love Is Your Love”), or the goose-bump quotient of “I Will Always Love You” (1992’s “Bodyguard” soundtrack).

One of “I Look to You’s” biggest delights, though, is its opener, “Million Dollar Bill.” Centering on a man who makes a gal feel really good, this is a celebratory, estrogen-fueled dance ditty produced by Swizz Beatz and R&B diva-ette Alicia Keys (and written by the latter) — and, man, is it catchy! However, Miss Keys’ mark is more than obvious, and that may be part of the problem. This youthful cut sounds like something borrowed from one of Miss Keys’ albums.

Another bright spot, the album closer, “Salute,” asserts Miss Houston as a “soldier girl” who “made it through”; spewing raw aggression through its midtempo, piano-laden, hip-hop-infused swagger. But this R. Kelly-penned and -produced tune is awfully reminiscent of Brandy. Ditto for one of Akon’s contributions, “Like I Never Left,” which tries on a little of the Janet Jackson/Kanye West “My Baby” vibe.

“A Song for You” is literally on loan from Leon Russell. Here, it’s a techno-fied remake of the classic soul ballad that just makes us hunger for Donny Hathaway’s pure, sparse version, which tingles with piano-key trills and big, pure vocals, rather than numbing with synth pulses and claps.

And herein lies the major flaw in “I Look to You.” Miss Houston is an artist who can — or at least used to — make songs untouchable (“The Star Spangled Banner” will never be the same). Yet even after the voice has tackled this collection of cuts (a couple that are actually pretty forgettable), you get the feeling that many of them could go on to have happy lives in a number of other performers’ oeuvres. Is it because Miss Houston has lost her touch? Eh, it seems to be more of an issue with the material.

For a taste of that old Whitney magic, though, click on “I Didn’t Know My Own Strength.” An empowering, gospel-tinged ballad, it gives the artist a chance to show she’s still got the pipes (even if they are noticeably huskier) and yields a powerful, personal message of survival.

“I Look to You” may not be one of Ms. Houston’s finest albums, but it’s a fine moment for her. When, toward the end of the record, she sings “I’m doing me,” we believe that for the first time in a long time, she really is. You go, girl.