If ever a soundtrack project seemed tailor-made for Whitney Houston's talents, it's "The Preacher's Wife" (Arista 18951). Not only does it offer all the expected opportunities for powerhouse vocal displays and stirring romantic balladry, but its church-oriented setting also affords the singer a chance to get back to her roots and sing some gospel music. How could it be anything less than perfect?
Trust me, it can.
Although hardly a disaster, "The Preacher's Wife" is considerably less than divine. There's no sacred fire in the gospel numbers, no hit-record sizzle to the pop ballads. She may come across as competent and convincing, but somehow, that's not enough to make the listener really care.
As always, there are several obvious singles on the album. "I Believe In You and Me," the Designated Hit Ballad, is pretty much what we've come to expect from Houston -- a slow, Streisand-esque build-up, a subtle sense of drama and a big, full-voiced payoff in the final chorus. "Step By Step," on the other hand, is a slick, synth-driven number that recalls the '80s-style sparkle of her early hits. Each is quite likable and certain to spend many weeks in the Top 10.
Still, that doesn't quite seem enough. No doubt a lot of that has to do with the expectations this project's gospel content generated. Considering the strength of her duet with CeCe Winans from the "Waiting to Exhale" soundtrack, there seemed to be reason to expect that Houston would shine like gold on this album's gospel numbers. Add the Georgia Mass Choir and a cameo by the great Shirley Caesar, and it's easy to come to the album expecting magic.
Magic, unfortunately, is not what we get. Even though the gospel material allows Houston to use mannerisms -- gruff growls, guttural melismas and sweet falsetto hoots -- that have yet to find their way into her pop recordings, there's never the sense of ecstatic release that marks a great gospel recording. Instead of being transported, we're merely entertained.
To her credit, Houston offers plenty of polish and professionalism. She has more than enough vocal strength to soar over the massed voices of the choir, but her greatest strength on most of these songs is her sense of time. Listen to the way she rides the rhythm in "I Go to the Rock," and you'll be astonished at how confidently her phrasing swings, and how effortlessly she can punch a lyric home merely by altering the accents.
Impressive as her testifying is, though, Houston is unlikely to turn skeptics into believers. Some of that has to do with the sense that she's not only trying too hard, but for the wrong reasons. "I Love the Lord," for instance, is the sort of "Tell it, sister!" ballad that builds slowly toward a display of untrammeled emotion, so that by the song's end, you expect to have felt the singer's faith. But by the time Houston gets to that final chorus, all we've learned is how much she knows about singing.
Needless to say, that makes "He's All Over Me," her big duet with Shirley Caesar, seem a bit of an anti-climax. Sure, Houston's voice is smoother, prettier and more powerful in a strictly musical sense, but there's something about Caesar's rough-edged voice and idiosyncratic phrasing that's infinitely more affecting than Houston's well-schooled poise.
Oddly enough, Houston seems equally out of place on the album's other big collaboration, though for markedly different reasons. For "Somebody Bigger Than You and I," Houston is joined by her hubby, Bobby Brown, two of his New Edition bandmates, Johnny Gill and Ralph Tresvant, and junior divas Faith Evans and Monica.
It's pretty hip company, but that's the problem. Not only do its deep-thumping bass and hip-hop flourishes seem slightly out of place amid all the old-school gospel here, but Houston seems, well, too stodgy to fit in with all the cool kids. It's like watching your mom try to get down.
Of course, none of that ends up making "The Preacher's Wife" unlistenable. In truth, the album is listenable as, er, heck. It's just not terribly compelling, and while that's hardly a mortal sin, neither is it anything to praise.
To hear excerpts from Whitney Houston's new release, "The Preacher's Wife," call Sundial at (410) 783-1800 and enter code 6128.
Pub Date: 11/28/96