Mariah Carey | Antonio Banderas | Madonna | Chicago 

Mariah on Fire: Exclusive Report on New Album

Mariah Carey is about to kick some you-know-what. I heard seven tracks from her forthcoming album last Friday, and they are great.

Let me be careful here: They're great if you like Mariah Carey's records. And listen, zillions of people around the world are devoted to her.

She's not Aretha Franklin and she's not Gladys Knight. But she has a tremendous talent in her voice, and she's not bad to look at either.

But even by those standards, Mariah's new songs are several cuts above a lot of her recent work. I don't mean Glitter, either. Better than a lot of Rainbow and Butterfly.

On the seven completed tracks I heard, there's none of that idiotic yodeling over sampled hip-hop tracks. There are real songs, fully composed, and constructed with melodies.

The absolute winner of the group is a gospel-flavored number called "My Saving Grace." Taking a page out of Whitney Houston's playbook, Carey has put together a number she'll be using for years to come on TV and in concert, no doubt backed by 40-member gospel groups.

In fact, I was surprised that she didn't do this on the album version. For the actual record, "My Saving Grace" -- as written and produced by Randy Jackson (the producer, not Michael's brother) -- is pretty restrained.

Good for her.

Among the six other numbers was "Through the Rain," Carey's new single, which sounds a lot better on the album than it does on her Web site. Even though she seems to be using a whispery voice more than in the past, "Rain" does the job for a lead single in re-establishing her as a singer's singer.

Now, it's not like Miss Mariah's given up on hip-hop. She's just gotten smarter about it. On what will most certainly be the lead single in that category, she's recorded with producer Just Blaze a G-rated cover version of Cam'ron's otherwise explicit "Oh Boy" with a sample of Rose Royce's classic "I'm Going Down."

Cam'ron himself kicks off the track with a rap, but it works and it's catchy. (The original lyrics would put Mariah's core fans into apoplexy.)

The Cam'ron connection comes from Mariah's new relationships at Island/Def Jam, where at least they have some other artists for her to bounce off of. Clearly, Carey's been put together with Damon Dash's Roc-A-Fella group. At Sony, without a black music division, Carey's compadres were Céline Dion and James Taylor. Not exactly her speed.

There's some other cool stuff on the album. Jermaine Dupri put together "The One," Just Blaze has a neat track called "You Got Me," which features Jay-Z and a Munchkin-like refrain from a rapper called Freeway. And Dr. Dre and Vidal Davis have a strong effort called "Clown" that features the lines: "Nobody cares when the tears of a clown fall down."

More new songs may be revealed at a listening party scheduled for later this week.

But most importantly, Carey and her management team are making sure that the new album is a total success and a complete vindication after the Glitter/nervous breakdown disasters of last year. They're visiting with radio people individually, and giving everyone who wants it a lot of face time with the star. When the album breaks, she'll be doing Letterman, the Today show and many other top-rated media spots.

Additionally, just so there are no music thefts (we won't go back into that long soap opera), all the tracks are under lock and key. I mean, heavy security. Mariah will not be turning on the radio to hear J-Lo, Amerie or Evan and Jaron singing any of these songs.

So bravo to Mariah, who's even revamped her Web site. Gone are the really trashy pics of her in ill-fitting tube tops and spandex. I think we might see a slightly toned-down look from the new Mariah. I say slightly because, of course, what fun would there be if she suddenly turned into Miss Prim and Proper?

Antonio's Two Out of Nine

Antonio Banderas' Broadway revival of the musical Nine is starting to line up some co-stars.

I hear that Miami Vice and Sopranos actress Saundra Santiago is set for one of the nine women who will captivate us on stage. This will be good news for Guiding Light fans, who would rather appreciate Santiago's talents somewhere else than on their show.

And the great Chita Rivera -- who makes a cameo appearance in the movie version of Chicago -- is also said to be slinking up to Antonio in the show that made the late, great Anita Morris famous. Something tells me that each of the seven remaining women yet to be named will be of equally illustrious caliber.

Madonna Swept Away by Ego 

If you don't know already, be aware that Madonna's Swept Away remake made about $375,000 at the box office over the weekend -- at 196 theaters. Isn't this enough to stop her from making any more movies? Is hubris so pervasive that she can't see it?

Something tells me that even with the Kabbalah and all her other philosophies, Madonna thinks the press has convinced everyone she can't act.

I think it's time she got a reality check here. Madonna is a great entrepreneur, a terrific producer, a moderately good singer and dancer, and a very bad actress.

My Kind of Town, Chicago

I've just spent three terrific days in the Windy City at the Chicago International Film Festival. I hadn't been back to Chicago in about 15 years. What a change! Gorgeous architecture, wonderful people, a great love of film, and good food everywhere.

Chicago is a revitalized city in every possible way. The film festival there has become very vital and meaningful.

Our screenings of Only the Strong Survive were even more poignant as two of the acts in the film -- Jerry Butler and the Chi-Lites -- have strong ties to the city. I had the pleasure of running into the Chi-Lites' founder, Eugene Record, his wife Jackie and the legendary "Duke of Earl" himself, Gene Chandler.

At a film festival reception, the equally legendary filmmakers D.A. Pennebaker and Haskell Wexler had a triumphal reunion that I was lucky enough to witness. All in all, a big success. But I'm still knocked out by the city. It's a lesson for all urban areas seeking comebacks.

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