It's not Mother Nature's way.

where it came from, where it' s going

Malcolm X (Qwest/reprise)

Various Artists

The Bodyguard (Arista)

Various Artists

By Allen Howie

Soundtracks are a separate breed in the music business. The question is, without the benefit of the film rolling past, does the soundtrack still stand on its own as an album. In the case of two recent releases, the answer is, happily, yes.

That Whitney Houston has a great set of pipes has never been questioned. In the past, though, she's taken considerable heat for not using it to its best advantage, for employing it as a sort of sonic bulldozer without regard to finesse or nuance. Well, Whitney has finally grown into her voice and of all places, on the soundtrack album for her film debut, The Bodyguard.

By consistently placing her vocal chords at the service of the half dozen songs she performs here, she comes up a winner almost every time.

Take the first single, for example. Even if seemingly interminable airplay is making "I Will Always Love You" begin to grate on your nerves, it' s nonetheless a strong performance. By choosing a "country" song, she gives herself the chance to interpret it in a new way, in her own genre and the restraint she shows through much of this bittersweet ballad, letting loose only near the end, reinforces the heartache of the lyrics.

Houston likewise gives soulful voice to David Foster's "I Have Nothing," thanks in part to a strong melody and production that is stirring rather than saccharine. The Chaka Khan-inspired version of Ashford and Simpson 's dance floor workout "I'm Every Woman" finds the singer living up to the standard she sets for herself, boosted by a punchy arrangement from Narada Michael Walden and Clivilles & Cole. The pretty pop ballad "Run to You" could do with a little less of David Foster's keyboards, but again succeeds on the strength of Houston's phrasing and dynamics. L.A. Reid and Babyface turn up the juice for the insistent funk of "Queen of the Night," a high-voltage performance taken a notch higher by an uncredited guitar break. The singer's half of the record ends with "Jesus Loves Me," a tasty reading of the Sunday School verse that is both rhythmic and reverent.

Of the remaining six tracks, three are hits and three near-misses. The pairing of Aaron Neville with Kenny G might seem like an Adult Contemporary nightmare, but on "Even If My Heart Would Break," the duo delivers the goods, as does S.O.U.L. S.Y.S.T.E.M. on their gentle rap version of Bill Withers' "It's Gonna Be a Lovely Day."

Mildly disappointing tunes by Lisa Stansfield ("Someday") and Curtis Stigers ("What's So Funny 'Bout Peace, Love and Understanding") lack some of the soulfulness of their own records, while "Trust in Me" is a misguided matching of raspy sound-alikes Joe Cocker and Sass Jordan. The only instrumental, Alan Silvestri's "Theme from The Bodyguard" conjures up a nice midnight rain feeling, then has the good sense not to linger too long.

The soundtrack from Malcolm X is a different animal altogether, a superb overview of black music in America that reveals the roots of much of today's jazz, pop and rock. The diversity found in these thirteen tracks is amazing and sublime moments abound. Rock prototype Big Joe Turner belts out "Roll 'Em Pete," catching jazz and R&B at the moment they collide to form the seed of rock 'n' roll, while Lionel Hampton's "Flying Home" takes wing and the Ink Spots glide through "My Prayer" with operatic grace.

Before you can catch your breath, along comes Billie Holiday's mournful "Big Stuff," followed by the ebb and flow of Erskine Hawkins' "Don't Cry Baby" and the jittery abandon of "Beans and Combread" by Louis Jordan. The mood shifts subtly and surely with Ella Fitzgerald's sweet "Azure," the ominous, eloquent tones of John Coltrane's "Alabama" and Ray Charles' rapturous "That Lucky Old Sun/"

Duke Ellington puts a sly spin on Tchaikovsky in the smoky subterfuge of "Arabesque Cookie," while Jr. Walker and the All-Stars pave the way for Stevie Winwood's entire career with "Shotgun."

The songs that begin and end the album are perfect bookends for this microcosm oi modern music. The proud ancestral roll call of Arrested Development's "Revolution" catches all the purpose and pride, sorrow and rage of the history of African Americans. In its own way, so does Aretha Franklin's version of the late Donny Hathaway's hopeful "Someday We'll All Be Together," a rendition made all the more poignant by Franklin's own piano accompaniment and the ache in Terrence Blanchard's trumpet lines.

Spike Lee's vision for this record was similar to that for his film ... to recreate ... the distinct sound of the AfricanAmerican experience." Where the soundtrack is concerned, he has succeeded admirably and in the process, given all of us a glimpse into the history and soul of our nation.