As the title "Taking Chances" implies, the new 18-song collection from Celine Dion finds the "Titanic" songbird breaking free from her Vegas show and venturing a little further from her adult contemporary nest with help from current hitmakers.
But fear not, Dion's heart still goes on - and on and on - in the power ballads with which she built her name. Fans who like to emulate their heroine's breastbone-thumping better figure out a way to build up some muscle over their sternums quick. The Canadian diva today unleashes a disc that will certainly lead to bruising in mere mortals.
Are chances taken? Not many, but there are rewards if you're willing to enjoy Dion's precise vocalizing and the hooky songs, including two sky-scraping ballads written by Linda Perry (Christina Aguilera's "Beautiful").
Along with the schmaltz, Dion has always included uptempo pop, rock, and dance ditties in her album mixes. (Think "I Drove All Night" and "River Deep, Mountain High.") So even though she may get a little more zippy here, "Taking Chances" doesn't represent any sort of bold new direction. Truly bold decisions aren't generally made by a lineup of hired guns with a proven track record of success, like Perry and the album's other writer-producers, many of whom Dion has worked with before.
Take, for example, Dion's cover of Heart's pop-rock anthem "Alone." Enlisting former Evanescence guitarist Ben Moody adds little; in fact, the carbon-copy arrangement doesn't pack as much windswept melodramatic punch as Dion's own "It's All Coming Back to Me Now." Great vocal, terrific melody, a fine rendition, but "Alone" is already indelibly stamped by Heart's Ann Wilson.
The scrappy "Fade Away" nabs the peppy snare sound of Kelly Clarkson's "Since U Been Gone," and "Eyes On Me" colors a bit outside the lines with an irresistibly wiggly, Eastern-flavored groove. (Shakira will kick herself for not getting it first.) The title number builds from an acoustic strum into the kind of pleasant radio-ready crunch that Michelle Branch would recognize, thanks to the work of Branch producer John Shanks.
Shanks is also responsible for two of the album's true left turns, "That's Just the Woman in Me" and "Can't Fight the Feelin'." And they are doozies, marvels of shocking inappropriateness.
The former is an insanely overwrought "blues" in the Janis Joplin vein that is impressive for the amount of grain Dion manages to put in her vocal, but falls short of convincing grittiness.
Despite fuzzy effects, electric guitars that chug and squeal, and threads of Southern boogie in the bass line, Dion's essentially angelic voice vigorously resists all attempts at being sullied in "Feelin'." As usual, her pristine technique persuades us that Dion believes that she's evil - and it's kind of cute - we're just not buying it.
Nor are we feeling the vulnerability of "I Got Nothin' Left." Co-produced by Ne-Yo (Beyoncé's "Irreplaceable") the lyrics call for bone-deep romantic weariness but our plucky narrator just sounds too resilient.
Among the album's successes is "Right Next to the Right One." Dion sings this quiet little waltz-time jaunt in a refreshingly dainty fashion. This momentary sense of restraint perfectly matches the winsome tune and vintage Beatles-inspired instrumental flourishes.
It's one of the rare moments on "Taking Chances" when Dion dials back the drama. That's the kind of chance she needs to take more of.
Sarah Rodman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.