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Queens Chronicle

Whitney’s back, Willie’s a classic, Ally’s thinking

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Posted: Thursday, October 1, 2009 12:00 am

Whitney Houston “I Look To You” ARISTA

Whitney Houston first hit the pop scene in a big way nearly a quarter-century ago with a string of chart-toppers, starting with “You Give Good Love,” “Saving All My Love For You” and “How Will I Know,” and the list goes on and on. While all performers who are in the public eye for as long as Houston has will endure inevitable ups and downs, her troubled personal life has provided a ton of grist for the supermarket tabloids over the years, even if you measure it by the celebrity diva yardstick.

After getting a divorce from fellow singing star Bobby Brown, and allegedly overcoming a drug dependency, Houston is back with her first album in seven years, “I Look To You.” The good news is that her voice, at least on this album, is as strong as ever (her recent live performances apparently have been another story).

As far as the material goes, it’s a mixed bag. The album opens with a pleasant uptempo tune co-written by former Queens resident Alicia Keys, “Million Dollar Bill.” Acknowledging her recent well-publicized troubles, Houston sings three tunes about self-affirmation, “Nothin’ But Love,” “Worth It,” and “I Didn’t Know My Own Strength.” They are a bit self-indulgent, but they’re likable.

On the other hand, there are some sour lemons here as well. The title track, “I Look To You,” written by R. Kelly (a pop star who has appeared in the National Enquirer and In Touch Weekly even more than Houston, for a variety of scandals) is a dreary, turgid ballad. Another weak spot is Leon Russell’s “A Song For You,” a composition that has been recorded by countless artists ranging from The Carpenters to Ray Charles (frankly, I am surprised that it is not performed on “American Idol” as frequently as the cliched Etta James classic, “At Last”). It was undoubtedly selected by Houston’s mentor, Arista President Clive Davis, but is badly handled, as she sings it in such a hurried manner that you would think that she was double-parked and saw someone writing a ticket on the next car.

Willie Nelson “American Classic” BLUE NOTE

Rod Stewart, Carly Simon and Linda Ronstadt are just a handful of the rock stars who have recorded albums composed entirely of American popular standards. However, the artist who first took the risk of paying homage to the music of the Greatest Generation (to borrow the title of Tom Brokaw’s best-selling book about those who fought in World War II) was Willie Nelson. In 1976, Nelson, who was revered in Nashville for writing best-selling tunes such as “The Night Life” and “Crazy” but branded “an outlaw” because he hung out with rock musicians and did not give a hoot about the Grand Ole Opry, recorded the platinum-selling album “Stardust.” A new generation was introduced to songs written by Cole Porter, George Gershwin, Johnny Mercer and Hoagy Carmichael. Nelson has returned to take another stab at the Great American Songbook with his new CD, “American Classic.”

The ageless Nelson (OK, he’s 76) still has the same distinct nasal crooning vocal style that we remember from “To All The Girls I’ve Loved Before,” “On The Road Again,” and “Always On My Mind.” With behind-the-scenes assistance from jazz legends Tommy LiPuma and Al Schmitt, the producer and engineer on this project, Nelson effortlessly works his way through “Fly Me To The Moon,” “Come Rain Or Come Shine” and “Ain’t Misbehavin’.” He teams up with Norah Jones to update the light-hearted Ray Charles-Betty Carter duet of “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.” Nelson even revisits “Always On My Mind.” Its lyrics, about a man who privately expresses regrets about how he should have done a lot of things better to save a relationship, sound more poignant with the passage of time.

Nelson truly is an American classic.

Vonda Shepard “Songs from Ally McBeal” LEGACY

This album was timed to coincide with Fox Television’s release of the DVD of the ’90s show which starred Calista Flockhart as the title character, neurotic young Boston attorney Ally McBeal. Talented singer Vonda Shepard, who made occasional appearances on the show, was utilized to express Ally’s thoughts in song.

Shepard nicely delivers original material such as “Maryland” and the show’s opening theme, “Searchin’ My Soul,” with conviction, and does a nice job with such warhorses as “Tell Him,” “Hooked On A Feeling,” “The Shoop Shoop Song,” “You Belong To Me” and “I Only Want To Be With You.” I have to admit some disappointment, though, that Legacy Recordings couldn’t find a way to include Shepard’s biggest pop success, her 1987 duet with Dan Hill about a relationship in peril, “Can’t We Try?”

In my opinion, the finest singing sequence on “Ally McBeal,” did not involve either Flockhart or Shepard, but rather actor James Marsden, who led the cast in a rendition of Todd Rundgren’s humorous “We Gotta Get You A Woman.” Sorry, that’s not here either.

Welcome to the discussion.