ALICIA KEYS – As I Am
A couple of years back, in this very publication, I made the outrageous claim that Alicia Keys was one of the most talented singer/songwriters ever … and I stand by that today.
From the moment she dropped onto the music scene in 2001, one thing was clear, the girl could write a killer hook. With a few simple words stretched out to blasting piano underscored intensity, “I keep on fallin, in and out of love with you,” Alicia Keys roared into the public consciousness with an album (“Songs in A Minor”) that would garner her both critical praise and a slew of awards. It also seems to be the only real lyrical idea she will ever write, but that’s not as bad as it sounds. With 2004’s follow up “The Diary of Alicia Keys,” we saw the singer amp up her game enlisting some of the hottest producers to bring her musical vision to life. A prodigious piano player, all the songs acted as a showcase for her searing, raw vocals, and roaming hands.
With so much time spent at the piano, it seems like Key’s has been able to experience little other than love, as is evidenced in the thirty (roughly) songs she has written to date.
“As I Am,” is both strikingly different to her past two albums and yet strangely similar. Those seeking out more of Keys’ piano driven ballads about heartbreak, newfound love, and euphoric romance will be pleased to know that Keys has delivered fourteen songs with her signature sound that seem both radio friendly and original at the same time.
Fortunately, for her slightly repetitive songwriting skills, Keys is blessed with one of the best voices in the pop/R&B world. Anyone who has heard the incredible first single, “No One,” where Keys practically screams her devotion to a man that will never be matched, you realize that even when she’s pushing the limits of her vocal range (which she is doing to beautiful effect in this single) she’s fully in command.
What makes her music accessible is the simple stream of emotions that she writes with. Her choruses often consist of a string of three or four words, repeated with different notes and they send shivers through your body. It doesn’t seem to matter that she employs slews of clichés because the way she performs them is breathtaking and she fully commits. This is most true on “Sure Looks Good To Me” which finds her singing with defiance, “Don’t rain on my parade.” There’s nothing lyrically original in this statement, but through some magic she makes it feel like you are hearing it for the first time.
At other places on the album, she is more lyrically successful. The absolutely stellar “Lesson Learned,” about a tumultuous relationship which she finally put an end to, is an incredible collaboration between her and fellow singer/songwriter John Mayer. He croons “It’s alright, it’s alright, it’s alright,” over slamming drums while Keys laments that “yes, I was burned, but I called it a lesson learned.” It’s a slow building explosion of a song that evokes a soulful feeling of some of Keys’ influences. At its most scorching moment Keys wails out that “You don’t know what the struggles for/ Falling down ain’t falling down if you don’t cry when you hit the floor/ It’s called a past/ because I’m getting past/ and I ain’t nothing like I was before/ You oughtta see me now.”
Of course this song is sandwiched between the songs “I Need You,” and “Wreckless Love,” which seem to be the antithesis to “Lesson Learned.” It’s all about love with Keys but this time the main difference is the production of the album. On “Diary,” the only drum driven song was the Timbaland produced “Heartburn” but this album finds pulsing and invigorating drums pounding throughout.
Even though I would love to see Keys branch out into uncharted territory with her subject matter, there’s no denying that what she does, she does well. Clichéd? At times, yes. Enjoyable? Always.
EAGLES – Long Road Out Of Eden
Their first studio album in 28 years, Long Road Out Of Eden spreads 20 tracks over two CDs and 90 minutes, and amply demonstrates how the magic formula they first devised in the early 70s continues to serve them well. The elements that made the Eagles America’s biggest band – hooky, articulate songcraft, impeccable lead vocals and stunningly tight harmonies – have certainly not been eroded over the long hiatus.
Taking a systematic, unhurried approach, the band reintroduces the cast – Don Henley, Glenn Frey, Joe Walsh and Timothy B. Schmitt – over the first six tracks. There’s a harmony-showcasing opener, a quintessential country rocker and then a track apiece featuring each of the four frontmen. They then wheel out the heavy artillery, eagerly returning to their primary subject matter – “Trouble in Paradise”, as their pal J.D.Souther once put it.
The first major piece, the metaphorical “Waiting In The Weeds”, turns on the interplay of diminishing expectations and lingering hope in the autumn of life. Frey’s “No More Cloudy Days,” boasting a gorgeous melodic hook, forms its bittersweet companion piece. Henley wheels out his soulful falsetto for the punchy, super-compressed “Fast Company”, setting up the thematic payoff of the first half, the Schmitt-sung “Do Something”, an inner dialogue that functions as both a romantic lament and a cry of sociopolitical distress.
Amid symphonic grandeur, the 10-minute title epic works its way to outright rage at the latest vestige of American imperialism. Henley’s lyric veers dangerously close to the overly literal verbiage, but he recovers with the pithy proclamation, “all the knowledge in the world is of no use to fools.” They continue the critique with the clever “Frail Grasp On The Big Picture” and the overly obvious but admittedly catchy “Business As Usual”.
This could have been edited down to an all-killer single album. Nonetheless, there’s something involving about the languid pace of the whole thing. That band’s ambition is intact is remarkable – that they’ve made an album that captures the zeitgeist is maybe even more so. Absolutely unmissable.
SEAL – System
It’s been a while, hasn’t it ?
Never the most prolific of artists, but one of the most talented around, Seal is finally back with System, returning to his roots in beat-heavy dance music. Fans of such groundbreaking tracks as “Killer” (number 1 for weeks with Adamski) and “Crazy” will be salivating over the long-awaited release, which pairs the vocalist with producer Stuart Price, who oversaw Madonna’s electrifying Confessions on a Dance Floor, and whose dance-music bonafides go back to underground hits he recorded as superstar French acts Les Rhythmes Digitales and Jacques LuCont. Together, the intercontinental pair piece together a primarily up-tempo record, as evidenced from the single “Amazing.” Fans of Seal’s crooner side need not despair, however, as he’s penned two tracks reflective of his domestic bliss with model Heidi Klum – “Wedding Day” and “Rolling.” Four years since his last hit album, Seal’s got his System down to a science. About time too …
This is a new series of compilations from some of the most influential artists of all time, and the first three releases span the early careers of a trio of very different icons of the music world.
First up is ELVIS PRESLEY with The Birth Of The King 1954-56, with 16 tracks released on the Sun and RCA labels including That’s Alright Mama, Heartbreak Hotel, Hound Dog and My Baby Left Me. At an ultra-budget price, this is a great introduction to why he became the most famous man on the planet. Similarly, the early career of RAY CHARLES is covered by I Got A Woman 1952-55, which includes the title track, Midnight Hour and It Should Have Been Me. Last, but not least, comes the coolest man that ever lived, step forward Mr DEAN MARTIN with Dino Swings 1949-56. Again, sixteen classic cuts from the best crooner in history (and yes, I’m including Frank Sinatra) featuring That’s Amore and Memories Are Made Of This. Great artists, great music, great prices – come on down!
Originally published in 2007