Monday, 12 June 2017

Whitney Houston (1985)

After reviewing Whitney: Can I Be Me last month, I was curious to check out the late singer's music, especially her debut. Growing up in the nineties, you could not help hearing her big hits, but even if half the track list were familiar songs, taken as a whole Houston's debut feels fresh and exciting.

The most interesting thing about this record is how unlike it sounds like her later records. By that I mean, apart from 'The Greatest Love of All', there are no hurricane-sized ballads.

'You Give Good Love' is a sweet ballad that remains one of Houston's best. While there are moments where she goes for the rafters, they feel like natural peaks, rather than an artist trademark. While it is incredibly polished, on this album Houston's sound is still embryonic. On this song, and the rest of the album, Houston uses her talents to serve the songs.

Somewhat unheralded nowadays, 'Thinking About You' is a terrific dance number and the funkiest thing on the album. Considering how hard Houston tacked toward pop, I was shocked to see 'You Give Good Love' and this track were produced by Kashif (who performs double duties as Houston's duet partner here). One of the great RnB producers of the eighties, he worked on most of Evelyn Champagne King's early stuff. In fact, if the production was harder, I could see 'Thinking About You' as a King song. I had never heard this song before, and it's become one of my favourites.

Opening like a new wave track from the early eighties, 'Someone For Me' is another terrific song. It skates close to sounding the most of its time, but with a strong vocal and some good guitar and percussion (I guess they were created by an 808, but there might be some real drums in there), it ends up as a real barn burner. It's just as good as 'Thinking About You'.

After the double whammy of two dance tracks, the tempo and tone changes with 'Saving All My Love For You'. One of Houston's most well-known ballads, it is a bummer of a song if you really listen to the lyrics. Once again, Houston sells the hell out of the vocal, which (somehow) blunts the sadness of the song's underlying message.

'Nobody Loves Me Like You Do' is a duet with Jermaine Jackson. There is a weird echo to the production and the rather twangy guitar  gives the song the feel of a country song. Once Houston and Jackson start singing the chorus, it feels like something Kenny Rogers would sing. Based on Clive Davis' edict that the album appeal to the broadest (white) audience, this song's inclusion is probably just savvy calculation. Still, it's  good song, and provides a nice lead-in to...
'How Will I Know' is one of those songs that makes me think of an aerobic class. It's one of Houston's songs that's always been in heavy rotation, but remains one of her best. The thing that always stood out for me about this song is the interplay with the backing singers. While it is obviously not gospel, the way they augment and play off Houston really gives the song that added bit of 'oomph'.

With its tinkling synth keyboards and soaring strings, 'All At Once' boasts a great vocal from Houston (and some great backing singers), but the lyrics are sentimental claptrap. Houston is a fine interpreter of material,  but here obvious, mawkish lines like 'she took your smile away' just come off silly when delivered so sincerely. Points for the delivery, but this might be the least interesting song on the album.
'Take Good Care Of My Heart' is another duet with Jermain Jackson. Previously released on his album Dynamite, it is a good love song with a very strong, heavy beat that gives it a real sense of momentum. The chorus brings it squarely into 'middle of the road' territory, but the duet partners work well together. Maybe not as memorable as some of the other deep cuts, but that's no slight on the song.

Whatever impact 'Greatest Love Of All' previously had is completely lost on me. It's no fault of the song - it's just been played so many times, and parodied to death, that it's hard to sit through without wanting to drift off.

One of Houston's earliest releases were her appearances on a couple of tracks by the great Teddy Pendergrass. One of these songs, 'Hold Me', serves as the finale here. A meeting between two eras, sonically it sounds like nothing else on the album. As well as a chance to hear two great voices together, it offers a glimpse at what Houston's voice sounded like in a more overtly 'soul' song.

One of the biggest hits of all time, and routinely hailed as Houston's best album, her debut is a really great record. Sure, some of the production shows its age, but Houston is in great voice, the material is all up to servicing her pipes and there is less evidence of the formula that would come to dictate her later releases.

Related reviews

Whitney: Can I Be Me

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