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Torch songs and damp squibs   Print

by David Sinclair
London Times
November 22, 2002

WHITNEY HOUSTON. Just Whitney ***
JONI MITCHELL. Travelogue ***
LADYTRON. Light & Magic ***

Never mind her foibles, Whitney Houston has still got it -most of the time, says David Sinclair

Her loopy reputation precedes her these days. But if you ask me, the more Whitney Houston has gone off the rails the better her music has become. Her last British tour, in 1999, was marked by reports of erratic behaviour. But whenever she did (eventually) walk on stage to perform hits such as It's Not Right but It's OK and My Love is Your Love the air around her seemed to crackle with kinetic energy.

No longer the queen of the power ballad -a baton which she handed on to Celine Dion sometime in the 1990s -Houston had somehow transformed herself into a righteous R&B dominatrix with an unlikely hint of ghetto fabulous.

Now, as her 40th birthday approaches, she seems intent on having her cake and eating it with her new album, Just Whitney (Arista/BMG). On the one hand there is a run of old-school torch songs and big, break-up ballads every bit as dull and schmaltzy as her early stuff. A Babyface-produced version of the standard You Light up my Life is given the full showboating treatment, while On my Own even has a chorus which begins with the words "And I ..." sung in such a way that you can't help but worry that the line is going to finish "... will always love you".

But the street-smart side of Houston has not disappeared altogether, and at the other end of the spectrum the current single, Whatchulookinat, is a much harder, Bobby Brown production (and P. Diddy remix) in which a frankly rather paranoid lyric is delivered with a feisty, Beyonce-ish wobble in the voice. New Whitney and Old Whitney even get to team up for the autobiographical Unashamed, a song with a fairly bland instrumental arrangement but laced together with a vocal thread of pure steel: "Listen here and listen good. I'm unashamed of the life that I lead, unashamed of the strength of my need."

Good for you, girl. Just don't get too comfortable with it.

With everyone from Robbie Williams to Rod Stewart recording albums of jazz standards, it takes Joni Mitchell, the grande dame of the Woodstock generation, to show what can really be achieved when pop takes on the orchestral formula.

Travelogue (Nonesuch/eastwest) is an ambitious, double-CD collection in which Mitchell reworks 22 of her old songs into an orchestral tour de force. Accompanied by a 70-piece orchestra, a 20-voice choir and star band, she transforms numbers such as For the Roses and Slouching Towards Bethlehem into sombre slabs of melodrama, while coaxing a contrastingly relaxed swing out of other songs such as Be Cool and Hejira.

Pop didn't used to be like this. For a little while it was all sleek and futuristic, a window on to worlds of brittle alienation and harsh, experimental beauty. Ladytron, who release their second album Light & Magic (Invicta Hi Fi/Telstar) on Monday, remember all that.

They are the mostly British babies of the Kraftwerk era, who now find themselves cast as reluctant fellow travellers with the so-called electroclash movement. Ladytron's songs, which have stark, forbidding titles such as True Mathematics, Cracked LCD, No Horizons and Cease2exist, sound as if they are bleeding from a Walkman headset. Fuzzy synths and clattering, drum-machine beats are intertwined with whispering female voices which glide in and out of the mix like ghosts broadcasting over an airport Tannoy. Supremely artful yet melodically inconsequential, their songs evoke a feeling of otherworldy scenarios unfolding.

The irony is that, although music like this was once seen as the future of pop, it is now just another part of pop's heritage, and in its own sweet way this album is just as retro and genre-specific as anything you might expect to hear from four guys with guitars trying to revive the memory of the Clash.

 

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