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Whitney Houston's new album channels her diva heyday

Whitney Houston turned 46 this year — which is like 106 for someone who was married to Bobby Brown. In the past decade, the mezzo-soprano from Newark, N.J., went from using Mariah as an ottoman to being a sad, scary has-been cackling "Crack is wack!" to a wide-eyed Diane Sawyer on network TV.

Poor Whit: I bet not a sobering day has passed when Aretha Franklin's goddaughter hasn't diva-dreamed of her Bodyguard-ing reign in the '80s and '90s.

So it makes sense — emotionally, artistically, commercially — that her new album, I Look to You, has no real interest in advancing modern music. And you know what? Good for her.

Such contemporary popsters as Alicia Keys, Akon and R. Kelly help out on Houston's seventh platter (and first in seven years). But Houston, with longtime svengali Clive Davis by her side, has instead decided to live in a world of silly-fun '80s dance songs and strong uncluttered ballads. She's also intent on showing a new nation of American Idols that singing and caterwauling are two different things. "Don't call it a comeback," she teases, nodding to her old pal, LL Cool J, "I've been here for years."

The album — which is half good, half forgettable, but never lame — isn't in stores until Aug. 31. But all 11 new tracks are streaming live on whitneyhouston.com. Listen for yourself: Although the singer looks tired on the album's cover (seriously, Bobby Brown will consume your lifeforce faster than Cher), she sings of tackling her demons with a refreshing clarity.

Her highs aren't quite as high anymore; and that famously throaty low is now an awkward, drag-queen husky. But on the first single Million Dollar Bill, a retro dancer penned by Keys and produced by Swizz Beatz, Houston lets it all hang out at song's end — but without great glops of digital trickery. It's a helluva moment, and it reminds you that for all her tabloid trappings, she's still a fabu singer with stellar control and phrasing.

Although the album's second half loses its catch, and the slimy Akon is a buzzkill, there are nice singles to be discovered. Stargate, the Norwegian producers that made Beyonce's Irreplaceable a smash, give Whit the mid-tempo humper Call You Tonight. A cover of Leon Russell's A Song for You starts in a jazz club, ends in a disco. And there are two yowza ballads: the David Foster-produced, Diane Warren-penned I Didn't Know My Own Strength ("Lost sight of my dream / Thought it would be the end of me") and the R. Kelly-scripted, God-infused title track ("As I lay me down / Heaven hear me now / I'm lost without a cause").

Houston tried a few "comeback" albums during her troubled times, but there was always a level of insincerity, of false confidence to each. Something was wrong, and we knew it. But this is a far more humble, and thus more confident, product. And maybe that's reason to believe she's actually healthy this time. And why not root for Whitney Houston? In this day and age of prefab pop tripe and computer-dependent hackjobs, we need all the real singers we can get.

Sean Daly can be reached at sdaly@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8467. His Pop Life blog is at blogs.tampabay.com/popmusic.

Whitney Houston, I Look to You (Arista) GRADE: B-

Still the greatest love of all?

She’s the Mickey Rourke of the music biz — beloved in the start, only to tumble and possibly rise again. But unlike Rourke’s comeback bid in The Wrestler, Whitney Houston thankfully didn’t have to shave off part of her hand in a deli to get our sympathy. Here are some ups and downs of her career.

1985: Her self-titled debut album is released, featuring the hits Saving All My Love for You and Greatest Love of All.

1991: Backed by the Florida Orchestra, her performance of the Star Spangled Banner before Super Bowl XXV in Tampa would reach the Top 20.

1992: Marries R&B singer Bobby Brown. Stars in the movie The Bodyguard with Kevin Costner.

1996: Co-stars in The Preacher’s Wife with Denzel Washington.

2000: Airport security in Hawaii find marijuana in both Houston’s and Brown’s luggage.

2002: In a TV interview with Diane Sawyer, Houston admits to using various substances but not crack cocaine, saying “Crack is wack.”

2005: Appeared with Brown in his reality TV show Being Bobby Brown.

2006: Separates from Brown and asks the court to fast track their divorce. It becomes final in 2007.

2009: Scheduled to be Oprah Winfrey’s first guest on the 24th season of Winfrey’s talk show on Sept. 14.

— Steve Spears, Times Staff Writer

Whitney Houston's new album channels her diva heyday 08/25/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, August 25, 2009 6:40pm]

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