Deborah Cox - I Will Always Love You (2017)

Deborah Cox
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Deborah Cox - I Will Always Love You (review)

For any singular vocal artist, the undertaking of a tribute record to Whitney Houston would be a daunting task. But of the select few who could do a credible job, Deborah Cox is certainly among the most ideal. She’s emitted shades of Houston’s signature blend of gusto and gloss from the beginning of her recording career, with gems such as “Where Do We Go from Here” and “Nobody’s Supposed to Be Here” showcasing an innate understanding of gospel-rooted R&B laced with a natural knack for contemporary phrasing. In 2000, Houston and Cox’s stunning (albeit frequently overlooked) duet, “Same Script, Different Cast,” served as a spot-on showcase for the tonal qualities inherently shared by the two.

Deborah Cox - I Will Always Love You (review)

For any singular vocal artist, the undertaking of a tribute record to Whitney Houston would be a daunting task. But of the select few who could do a credible job, Deborah Cox is certainly among the most ideal. She’s emitted shades of Houston’s signature blend of gusto and gloss from the beginning of her recording career, with gems such as “Where Do We Go from Here” and “Nobody’s Supposed to Be Here” showcasing an innate understanding of gospel-rooted R&B laced with a natural knack for contemporary phrasing. In 2000, Houston and Cox’s stunning (albeit frequently overlooked) duet, “Same Script, Different Cast,” served as a spot-on showcase for the tonal qualities inherently shared by the two.

Following her role as the singing voice of Houston in Lifetime’s 2015 Whitney biopic, Cox recently assumed the lead in a touring musical production of The Bodyguard. Based on Whitney’s 1992 movie which spawned her record-breaking rendition of Dolly Parton’s “I Will Always Love You,” the new musical version also incorporates material from her first three albums. Eight of the featured tunes have now been released as a sort of EP/mini-album by Cox, aptly titled I Will Always Love You.

Whitney fans of many degrees will find various points of interest in I Will Always Love You, but the CD will sustain the most favor with those who have seen the musical version of The Bodyguard—for, the style in which these new recordings have been fashioned is designed to emulate Houston’s original hit versions of the songs—both vocally and in arrangement. From the vocal angle, what stands out remarkably quickly upon listening to Cox’s reading of these songs is her cognizance of staying true to Whitney’s defining characteristics and subtle nuances, while admirably never succumbing to blatant mimicry or overreaching. The instances in which she leaves out a minor yet memorable inflection are few and far between; but when she does, it’s hardly noticeable: the listener already is reliving the initial experience through the energy that Cox channels, which the temporary space only enhances. In the hands of many others, an overshot note or misstep might have detracted from an entire number.

The best moments on I Will Always Love You are those in which Cox is clearly comfortable and effortless in maintaining the aforementioned balance and simultaneously can let a little loose without being overly conscious of staying in character. This occurs most notably on “I Have Nothing” and “I Wanna Dance with Somebody.” The former is right in her prime range and finds her harnessing nearly the same passion which Houston exhibited the first time around; the latter is a spirited burst of fun that conveys both clarity and freshness. While her enthusiasm is also apparent on the opening “I’m Every Woman,” it isn’t quite as contagious from start to finish. (It’s worth noting here that this is one of four selections on the set which were remakes when Whitney first recorded them.) The overall vibe of assertive celebration is present, but doesn’t possess the distinctive touch which Whitney gave to Chaka Khan’s universal anthem.

“I’m Every Woman” is also an example of the one dilemma which I Will Always Love You confronts several times: that of recreating the original production styles of the songs without seeming formulaic. For the most part, producer Lascelles Stephens (a prominent contributor to Cox’s first two albums) has constructed a listener-friendly atmosphere which accents her performances. But there are brief spurts where the updated technology used is noticeably inferior to the Houston recordings produced by the likes of Narada Michael Walden and Clivilles & Cole. This is the case with some components of the tracks for “I’m Every Woman” and “I Wanna Dance with Somebody”—with the intro to the latter sounding a bit Karaoke-ish.

The standout cut of I Will Always Love You from a musical vantage point is “The Greatest Love of All.” Instead of attempting to duplicate the grand, symphonic arrangements of Michael Masser, the instrumental background is pared down to an acoustic-style keyboard/guitar setting which provides an emotively personal context in which Cox thrives. Her own dynamic range, likewise, is decidedly understated, sounding powerfully fluid through hushed tones and carefully chosen, moderately belted notes. Aside from affording a respectful tribute to Houston’s musical grace and defining musicality, this number also serves to reassure longtime Cox fans that she’s still got her own special qualities as a singer which she has purveyed effectively in a variety of stylistic ventures. Recommended.

by Justin Kantor 
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