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Houston's new LP almost has it all hide

Whitney Houston's second album, "Whitney," arriving in record stores today, is better on every count than her smash debut LP. The songs are stronger, the production more dynamic and her voice isn't nearly as stilted.

With "Whitney," we get qualities of her live performance, where she tests her range and vocal agility and plays with her rich amber tone.

She is far more confident this time around. But there is a cut on the album whose title inadvertently sums up Houston at this stage of her development -- "Didn't We Almost Have It All."

One of the two-hanky showstoppers on this LP, the song builds into a crescendo while the lyrics spill a tale of yearning over a missed opportunity at happiness. As a star, Houston would seem to have it all -- the show-biz genes (mother Cissy Houston and cousin Dionne Warwick), the model face and figure, a vivacious personality, and more technical and natural ability than any new singer of the past 10 years. She has big production and songwriting names behind her as well -- Kashif, Narada Michael Walden and Michael Masser.

She has her label president and mentor Clive Davis, who nurtured Whitney like a hothouse orchid for the big time. And big she became.

Her debut album sold 14 million copies, more than any other solo artist.

She walked home with Grammys and American Music Awards. She sold out large arenas. The first album around established her as a star.

The second album was to give us what the first lacked. With "Whitney" she almost succeeds.

Still missing is artistic vision, the one quality that made far less technically capable singers, like Billie Holiday, such moving and timeless communicators. Any time she lets go, rips up and down her range, and revs up to full throttle, the album succeeds.

Perhaps that is why some of the most delightful moments on "Whitney" are the up-tempo dance numbers like the first single, "I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me)," and the sparkling, Latin-tinged "Love Will Save the Day." It is her interpretive skills that falter. She tries all right.

But you get the feeling that she just doesn't know what it means to have "Just the Lonely Talking Again" or what it would be like to forgive a lover that hurt her ("You're Still My Man"). There is a distance between what comes from her mouth and what comes from the heart. Houston needs what no songwriter, mentor or music video can give her -- experience and depth.

But perhaps we must wait several years before Houston, who is only 23, lives up to her potential by taking charge of her music and expressing who she is. In the meantime, perhaps she should record a gospel album or more duets with her mother, which is one of the shining high points on "Whitney." We can forgive the radio format self-consciousness of her albums and her whitewashed image on video.

There is nothing wrong with aiming for the largest audience possible. But at some point, she will need to show us that it is worth waiting for her to grow up.

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