Mariah Carey has always been about control: over her career, sure, but also over her extraordinary voice, which is her greatest asset as a performer. And that voice is in full bloom on “The Rarities,” her new compilation of previously unreleased and low-profile B-sides.
Although releasing an album of rarities and outtakes can be like sharing baby pictures with the world, based on the evidence presented here, Mariah never really had much of an awkward stage. Even though this is a collection of tracks that, for whatever reason, didn’t make the final cut of her studio albums, she never lets us see her sweat and she’s not about to start now, so don’t expect to find any stains here.
She can be heard saying “the end of that was iffy” during the outro of the opener, “Here We Go Again,” a previously unreleased track recorded for “Mariah Carey” that would have sounded comfortable sitting next to “Someday.” For the most part, though, these rarities would have passed muster on any Mariah long-player as, at worst, harmless filler and, at best, above-average album tracks. Likewise, her vocal delivery has always been impeccable, and while her lyricism has improved dramatically over time, none of the sentiments on songs like “Can You Hear Me” and “Do You Ever Think of Me” — an outtake from her 1991 sophomore album “Emotions” and the B-side of her “Dreamlover” single, respectively — would have been out of place on a Celine Dion album from the same era.
But while Carey’s early singles were carefully constructed for maximum pop appeal, “rarities” like “Do You Ever Think of Me” and especially “Everything Fades Away,” the B-side of her 1993 single “Hero,” offer the kind of quiet-storm soul that she tended to leave to the Toni Braxtons and Chante Moores of the early ’90s. While a sultry slowburner like “Everything Fades Away” might have given Moore the elusive smash she needed to bring her closer to the big leagues, by Carey standards, there are no lost classics here, no snapshots of the diva that could have been — just high-quality castoffs.
As on her albums, she had a hand in writing and producing most of the songs here, and despite being culled from across three decades, “Rarities” is a testament to her consistency as an artist. Unlike many of the pop queens that followed her up the charts, she can craft a hit without a cast of millions — most of the songs here are credited to her and just one other collaborator — and even as she switches up her emphasis from crossover pop to hip hop to adult soul, there’s a common thread of Mariah-ness running through everything.
There are, of course, a few clunkers, like her messy live take on the jazz classic “Lullaby of Birdland.” Here’s the thing about jazz: It’s based on improv, but there should be a method to the madness. Unfortunately, Mariah’s take on jazz chanteuse is more madness than method; suffice it to say she’s no Sarah Vaughan. Then there’s “Save the Day,” an old discarded song that Mariah finished this year using a sample of Fugees’ cover of “Killing Me Softly with His Song.” Lauryn Hill’s vocals have been cleverly interpolated, but jejune heal-the-world lyricism (“Isn’t it time that we start rebuilding/ All of the things that have basically crumbled”) sinks its apparent aspirations to be a hip-hop “Imagine.” A rare lyrical misstep, it contains a timely sentiment, but what the world needs now is something more probing and specific than another string of peace homilies.
The world probably also could do without “Loverboy (Firecracker – Original Mix).” It erases the sample of the 1986 Cameo hit “Candy” from the “Glitter” single in favor of a less shamelessly hit-seeking musical backdrop, but it still sounds cluttered and unfocused. At least it offers a sneak peek into Mariah’s creative process — and she could have included more alternate mixes, including David Morales’s hard-to-find “Def Classic Radio Mix” of “Always Be My Baby.” More than anything else in her pre-“Butterfly” canon, that reimagining of her 1996 chart-topper found her tweaking the lyrics and overhauling the original song’s melody to transform it from sweet to biting. That sort of reinvention is missing from “The Rarities”; it would have given the musical scrapbook a much-needed element of surprise.
The disc-two concert portion, taken from a 1996 show in Tokyo, is a showcase for Carey’s early career that reminds us that she can be a formidable live performer when the sound is on-point and there are no technical snafus to trip her up. Honestly, though, coming right after “Close My Eyes,” an acoustic version of an album track from “Butterfly” that Mariah recently performed live on “Good Morning America” from home, the concert-length reminder feels unnecessary. Her vocals on the “Rarities” rendition of “Close My Eyes” are lovely and understated, even when she’s hitting her legendary whistle notes. She’s now 23 years removed from “Butterfly,” and she’s turned the introspective hymn of regret and hope into her “Landslide,” and like Stevie Nicks in her 22-years-later performance of that song on Fleetwood Mac’s “The Dance” in 1997, Mariah lets her experience burnish it into a beautiful, melancholy shade of moody blue.
“A part of me/ Will never be quite able/ To feel stable/ That woman-child failing inside,” she sings over Daniel Moore’s piano. It’s the sound of Mariah ceding control, if only for three minutes and 18 seconds.