Good Looks & Music... We Look to NYC for Whitney Houston's Album Party; Yes, She's Looking Good. Same Goes For the Music
Leah Collins
Published: Wednesday, July 22, 2009

"You could feel she was in the room before you saw her, and you knew she was gone even if you hadn't seen her leave": That's what David Foster -- the producer behind hits such as "I Have Nothing" once said of Whitney Houston.

Having been in the same room as her, I can't say that my senses are as preternaturally tuned as those of the Canadian superproducer. Still, as proven Tuesday night at an industry event in New York City (where we were guests of Sony Music), Houston is fully capable of raising an audience to their feet -- without even saying, never mind singing, a word.

Houston made an appearance at New York's Allen Room Tuesday night, breaking what's been a long absence to preview nine as-yet-unfinished tracks from her new album, I Look To You.

The record's on track for a September 1 release. It's her first since 2002's Just Whitney -- and if the seven-year delay wasn't enough reason to begin labelling this one a comeback, you just have to consider her woes over the past few years: multiple trips to rehab, cancelled performances, Being Bobby Brown.

The audience -- which included celebrity friends (such as Martha Stewart, Alicia Keys, Gayle King) and family (mother Cissy Houston, cousin Dionne Warwick) -- were there for the new music. But the main event was Houston herself -- even if she wouldn't be performing, just using that capital-v Voice of hers to deliver a few on-message soundbites about her return ("I had plans three years ago to live on an island and open a fruit stand. ... But then I got a call from Clive [Davis] and he said, 'No. That's not what you're going to do'") and a flurry of effusive "thank-yous."

As you may have heard after her last public appearance (at a similar industry event held in London, England on June 14) Houston's successfully banished the Skeletor image that went along with her troubled recent years. Never mind the fact we got the photographic evidence last week; Tuesday's event treated an eyeful of a healthy-looking, on-her-game Houston as the main event.

You want old-fashioned spectacle? How about having a curtain raised to reveal her bounding onstage (the curtain also happened to reveal a floor-to-ceiling view of Central Park, in case Whitney alone wasn't enough of a theatrical flair). Yes, she looks fit and fashionable (appearing on stage in a high-necked liquid-vinyl dress and killer silver and black laquered heels) -- and if her constant pacing of the stage was any indication, she's likely a bit nervous about re-entering the glaring spotlight, too.

She was smiling her brightest when greeting friends and family from the stage; teenage daughter Bobbi Kristina walked up to the stage to give her mom a peck on the cheek.

Curiously, it was Diane Sawyer whom Houston made a beeline for first, leaning into the front row to embrace her. Apparently that would be a very public cue that there's no hard feelings about that November 2002 "crack is wack" interview. Or maybe she's just as eager as you might expect to alert the media she's back in the game. If anything, she has the right connections. As Houston joked, leaning towards guest Gayle King, O Magazine editor-at-large and the queen of TV's long-time bestie, "Gayle, it's so good to see you. Please tell Oprah I say hello."

But lest we forget Houston has moved more than 140 million records off her many hits, the "listening event" was ostensibly all about the music. Clive Davis, Sony Music's chief creative officer and the album's producer, introduced each of the songs. It's a varied collection, offering entry points for whatever incarnation of Houston you prefer. There are a potential nu-disco anthems ("Million Dollar Bill"), R&B slow jams ("Call You Tonight," "Worth It"), and, yes, a few of those stand-your-hair-on-end ballads ("I Didn't Know My Own Strength," "I Look to You") that'll give American Idol wannabes fodder for years to come.

The lyrics hardly read like an episode of Behind the Music, but the comeback sentiment is fittingly trotted out time and time again. Titles such as "Like I Never Left" and "I Didn't Know My Own Strength" speak for themselves (the latter features the chorus: "I crashed out and I tumbled/ but I did not crumble"). Despite the recurring theme, the R. Kelly written "Salute" -- which paints Houston as a "soldier girl" who "took a fall" only to "make it through" -- will have none of the C-word. "Don't call it a comeback/I've been here for years," she spits out on one of the verses.

The Alicia Keys-written, Swizz Beatz-produced "Million Dollar Bill" -- which past reports have tipped as the album's lead single -- started the listening session on a hard-to-top high, though. Opening with Houston's inimitable vocals oh-oh-oh-ing over a delicious disco beat, it's a slap in the face: a statement that a diva is back and -- dust off that "I'm Every Woman" cassingle -- could just be re-inventing herself as a clubland queen.

Keys, who was seated in the VIP section near the front of the stage, helped shove the moment over the top, getting on her feet to lead a spontaneous chair-dancing session. Don't question Keys' claim as a multi-talent; she also managed to get her mini-party on video. (We expect to see some footage of the singer grooving with fellow guest Martha Stewart on her site any minute).

As for the "Voice," it still lets loose on the ballads. Actress Vivica A. Fox told us after the presentation that the title track was her favourite of the bunch, saying that after listening to the song: "I really feel she's reenergized herself as a woman first ... but more importantly as a recording artist."

As far as material that showcases Houston's vocal chops goes, it's a cover of Leon Russell's "A Song For You" that got our synapses firing. As Davis revealed, the rough cut played Tuesday was finished just the day prior, but it's the one where Houston's talent as an interpreter really raises hairs and tingles spines. The fact that it breaks into a '90s-style house beat mid-way through only adds to the drama.

Houston and Davis are expected to host a similar event in L.A. later this month.

I Look To You Tracklist:

1. Million Dollar Bill
2. Nothin' But Love
3. Call You Tonight
4. I Look To You
5. Like I Never Left (feat. Akon)
6. A Song For You
7. I Didn't Know My Own Strength
8. Worth It
9. For The Lovers
10. I Got You
11. Salute




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