Divas breathe pure soul into 'Waiting to Exhale'


Let's get this much straight from the start: "Waiting to Exhale" (Arista 18796) is not the new Whitney Houston album.

That's not because it's a soundtrack album. After all, "The Bodyguard" was a soundtrack, too, and like "Waiting to Exhale" included tracks by other singers. But Houston was clearly the star of that album and generated the album's only hits.

"Waiting to Exhale," on the other hand, is more an ensemble piece. Some of that has to do with the fact that Houston only appears on three tracks (one of them a duet with CeCe Winans), just half of what she contributed to "Bodyguard." But it also reflects the fact that, though Houston is clearly the star of the show, she's hardly the only diva on this bill.

Indeed, the album credits read like a Who's Who of soul sisterhood: Aretha Franklin. Chaka Khan. Patti LaBelle. Mary J. Blige. Toni Braxton. Brandy. TLC. SWV. They are women. Hear them roar.

But not too loud, because for all its appearance of feminine solidarity, the "Waiting to Exhale" soundtrack is in fact men's work. That's right -- apart from a couple of co-writer credits, all of the album's music was written by men. Ironic, no?

Fortunately, the man responsible for most of the music is Kenneth "Babyface" Edmonds. It isn't just that he's able to translate the movie's themes into pop-song language; his sense of aural romance and romantic iniquity is so highly developed that the best songs seem confessional even when the album credits suggest otherwise.

Some of that has to do with the way he shapes the material to fit each of the voices involved. Houston's "Exhale (Shoop Shoop)," for instance, is every bit the big-screen ballad you'd expect, building intensity slowly and deliberately but never quite overpowering the slow-simmering charm of its shoop-shoop chorus. Likewise, Toni Braxton's "Let It Flow" perfectly suits the easy power and satiny tone of her voice, delivering an endearing combination of drama and dignity.

Brandy's "Sittin' Up in My Room," on the other hand, is sly and sassy, sounding almost like the work of another generation with its heavy bass and breathy, understated vocal. TLC's "This Is How It Works" takes that even a step further, with a slow-and-nasty groove topped by a decidedly salacious lyric.

Babyface doesn't just play to our expectations. He reins in Mary J. Blige's "Not Gon' Cry" so effectively that even devoted fans will have to check the credits to be sure it's her. Never has her singing been so down-home soulful or so devastatingly effective. Chaka Khan evokes the ghost of Sarah Vaughan on "My Funny Valentine" (the only tune on the album not by Babyface). And who would have expected such hushed restraint from Patti LaBelle for the first few verses of "My Love, Sweet Love"?

Not every pairing is a perfect fit. "It Hurts Like Hell" is a remarkably moving piece of music, but it's pitched so high that Aretha Franklin seems to be singing falsetto most of the way through -- not her most attractive vocal feature. And Chante Moore's singing on "Wey U" is a tad too breathy to make its jazzy pretensions convincing. Nobody expects a soundtrack album to be solid gold, though. "Waiting to Exhale" offers more hits than misses, and these days, that's about as good as movie music gets.

'Exhale' To hear excerpts from the soundtrack to "Waiting to Exhale," call Sundial at (410) 783-1800 and enter the four-digit code 6104. For other local Sundial numbers, see the Sundial directory on Page 2A.

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