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Just Whitney and a whiff of desperation

Robert Hilburn; Dean Kuipers; Natalie Nichols; Steve Hochman; Soren Baker; Kevin Bronson

Whitney Houston

“Just Whitney” (Arista)

* 1/2

Houston has been a tantalizing presence since arriving on the scene in the ‘80s with a voice equaled for sheer beauty and command in mainstream pop only by Barbra Streisand’s.

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Even if we winced at the overblown pop ballads, Houston injected almost every recording with a boldness that made such rivals as Celine Dion and Mariah Carey seem bloodless and one-dimensional.

Through it all, there was always the chance that Houston would step beyond the pop gloss and use her voice in warmer and more inviting ways -- which she did by employing contemporary R&B; textures in her 1998 album “My Love Is Your Love.”

“Just Whitney” (in stores Tuesday) doesn’t follow up on that. Houston’s voice is fine, but the album is a timid outing that fails to even generate the presence her earlier hits did. There’s nothing with the sheer pop celebration of “I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me),” and this time Houston’s heart doesn’t seem to be in the overblown pop, including a version of “You Light Up My Life.”

Responding to tabloid rumors about problems in her personal life, Houston strikes back at outsiders (“Whatchulookinat?), defends her lifestyle (“Unashamed”) and toasts her marriage (a duet with hubby Bobby Brown on “My Love”).

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Mostly, “Just Whitney” suffers from the sense of career desperation that surrounded Michael Jackson’s recent CDs. She and four dozen writers and producers work so hard finding another hit, they lose track of the human qualities that made her music so formidable.

-- Robert Hilburn

Transplants hurt by rancid rap

Transplants

“Transplants” (Hellcat/Epitaph)

**

The big banner song “Tall Cans in the Air” lays out most of what goes wrong on the Transplants’ album, and that’s rapper Rob Aston’s constant stream of cliched, curse-laden and pointless shouting. Rapped choruses such as “Tall cans in the air / Lemme see ‘em / ... you” make you feel as if you’re arguing with a steroid-maddened drunk. Worse, it sounds like a punk answer to gangsta rap.

This is a dead shame because, as a kind of pop-punk supergroup experiment, the mix of Aston, Rancid main man Tim Armstrong and Blink-182 drummer Travis Barker transcends genre to come up with some oddly compelling music, a lot of it sounding like Clash outtakes. “Diamonds and Guns” is one of the better examples, with a Kingston dub piano pump to it that perfectly sets off Armstrong’s obliterated but surprisingly sensitive vocal.

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Similarly, “California Babylon” and the exit track “Down in Oakland” point the way to a gently menacing dub-reggae-punk breakthrough, but lack the full commitment. The mix has promise without the raps. With them, it struggles to become much more than parody.

-- Dean Kuipers

Timbaland rules Aaliyah collection

Aaliyah

“I Care 4 U” (Blackground)

**

The late R&B-pop; star and actress had a short but productive life. This posthumous collection (due Tuesday) features seven hits from three albums she released before dying in a Bahamas plane crash last year at age 21, along with six previously unreleased tracks and a remix of her version of Marvin Gaye’s “Got to Give It Up.”

The new tunes were completed before Aaliyah’s death and are mostly outtakes from her self-titled 2001 album. Well, it’s easy to see why such forgettable works as the squishy fidelity pledge “Don’t Worry” and the disco-ish hip-hopper “All I Need” didn’t make the final cut.

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Most of these bland, romance-oriented numbers are merely soothing sonic wallpaper, with Aaliyah’s pretty yet personality-free voice often treated like just another element in the mix. The songs are interesting (or not) thanks to such producers as R. Kelly, Teddy Bishop and Timbaland, whose minimalist blend of hip-hop, funk, soul and dance-music touches graces most of the hits.

Indeed, the Timbaland-produced smash “Try Again” remains a modern pop classic. And Aaliyah could sound convincingly sultry. But the most striking new moment belongs to Timbaland, who infuses “Don’t Know What to Tell Ya” with a noir-funk feel that evokes “Blade Runner.”

-- Natalie Nichols

Quick spins

Phish

“Round Room” (Elektra)

***

“I need a new way to express myself so you don’t have to guess,” Trey Anastasio sings on his Vermont quartet’s refreshed return from a two-year hiatus (in stores Tuesday). It’s the right instinct. There’s new directness here, even as several songs stretch jazzily to around 10 minutes, and Band-like heart added to the usual whimsy.

-- Steve Hochman

GZA/Genius

“Legend of the Liquid Sword” (MCA)

***

With his fourth album (due Tuesday), the gifted wordsmith and one of the most respected Wu-Tang Clan members assembles another captivating journey, as he makes entire story lines out of just the names of animals (“Animal Planet”) and celebrities (“Fame”). The moody production and guest appearances from his Wu brethren keep the GZA’s legend alive.

-- Soren Baker

Common

“Electric Circus” (MCA)

* 1/2

On the masterful “Between Me, You and Liberation,” this Chicago rapper (who appears Thursday at the Universal Amphitheatre) offers moving commentary on sexual abuse, the death of a family member and homosexuality. The rest of his fifth album is a messy hodgepodge of demo-quality experimentation in musical styles.

-- S.B.

Craig David

“Slicker Than Your Average” (Wildstar/Atlantic)

**

The English R&B-dance-pop; heartthrob scored some fame with his inventive 2001 debut, but this follow-up spends too much time alternately bragging and moaning about being a celebrity. He even brings in Sting to back up his whining on “Rise & Fall.” The watery “Personal” is breezily seductive, but David’s emulation of Prince, ‘N Sync, the Beatles et al doesn’t bode well for his potential as a superstar innovator.

-- N.N.

Campfire Girls

“Delongpre” (Mootron)

**

The name is ironic, kids -- there are only boys in L.A.'s Campfire Girls. The quartet’s debut turns the musical clock back to the mid-'90s, perhaps underscoring the timelessness of grunge, but adding nothing to the canon of heavy rock and no-frills production. Alternating between seductions and confessions, the songs have some interesting ideas, along with occasionally disarming humor. But the characterless vocals and colorless drone drag “Delongpre” down.

-- N.N.

No Knife

“Riot for Romance!” (Better Looking)

** 1/2

Who needs cutlery in a world of stabbing riffs? Eight years and four albums have sharpened this San Diego quartet’s assault, which engages its audience in a test of sonic pinball that occasionally racks up points with pop flourishes. While the settings frame a measured fury, No Knife’s songs settle for the vague restlessness suggested by the label “post-punk.” The band performs tonight at the Troubadour.

Kevin Bronson

*

Albums are rated on a scale of one star (poor), two stars (fair), three stars (good) and four stars (excellent). The albums are already released unless otherwise noted.


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