‘Exhale’ Brings Big Picture Into Focus : ** 1/2, VARIOUS ARTISTS , “Waiting to Exhale”, Soundtrack, <i> Arista</i>

Sometimes a novel is so vividly written you can practically see a movie of it unreeling before your eyes as you read. Much more unusual is the soundtrack that conjures would-be scenes of the film it complements, undoubtedly because a group of songs rarely tells a narrative story.

This album deftly conveys visions of “Waiting to Exhale” via its collection of African American divas (including the movie’s star, Whitney Houston, as well as Mary J. Blige, TLC and Brandy) singing about the foibles of love and relationships--mirroring the four women in the book and film who talk of nothing but.

For all its surface sisterhood, the soundtrack is really the work of a man, Babyface, who wrote nearly every song and co-produced as well. No matter his gender, in songs such as “How Could You Call Her Baby"--all the more powerful for the restraint Shanna displays in singing of betrayal--he has captured what it can mean to be a woman in 1995.

Houston’s elegant “Exhale (Shoop Shoop)” and Toni Braxton’s “Let It Flow,” with rich, smoky vocals as thick as Inland Empire smog, exude maturity without resorting to the relentlessly big vocals that characterize so many R&B; records aiming for adult audiences. If the movie is half as good as the soundtrack makes you think it will be, don’t wait for the video.


** 1/2 Melissa Etheridge “Your Little Secret,” Island.

Etheridge has always been more than just the lesbian Bruce Springsteen. But on her latest album, she’s a little bit less so.

“Yes I Am,” her 1993 breakthrough release, ventured into psychedelia and subtle balladry, mostly uncharted territory for her. Here, she retreats almost exclusively to the sort of baseball-and-beer rock she began with.

Which is not to say the entire album is guitar, drums and bellowing vocals. It’s most successful when showcasing Etheridge’s seductive voice, which could melt an M&M.;

What Etheridge’s songs lack in musical adventure they display even less of in lyrical ingenuity. If such lines don’t appear somewhere on “Born to Run,” they may as well: “Can you hear the lonely engine screaming through the town / There’s nowhere to run when the darkness comes down.”

A secret isn’t particularly interesting when you’ve already heard it, and “Your Little Secret” ultimately disappoints in the same way: It sounds pretty good, but it sure isn’t intriguing.

New albums are rated on a scale of one star (poor), two stars (fair), three stars (good) and four stars (excellent).