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Listening Room: Alicia Keys, "Nine" and more...
Alicia Keys, “The Element of Freedom” (MBK/J) ***
“The Element of Freedom” seems an ironic title for Alicia Keys fourth studio album since the soul singer and songwriter is, overtly and proudly, a slave to her emotions. That’s certainly still the case on these 14 songs, too, as Keys and company craft a musically understated but richly passionate set of paeans to love gained, lost and in-progress. Consider just the opening cascade, in which we find Keys defiantly defending her man from skeptical friends (“Love is Blind”), breaking up (“Doesn’t Mean Anything”), vowing resilience by declaring “I’m gonna find a way to make it without you” in “Try Sleeping With a Broken Heart,” recovering (“Wait Til You See My Smile”) and then falling head over heels all over again (“That’s How Strong My Love Is”). She doesn’t quite know what to make of it all — “I thought love would be my cure/But now it’s my disease,” she sings — but Keys seems ready to take the ride again and again. She has plenty of friends alongside, too, including longtime cohort (and former paramour) Kerry “Krucial” Brothers and Jeff Bhasker on the production and co-writing tip, as well as current boyfriend Swizz Beatz, who helmed “Put It In a Love Song,” Keys’ instructional girl-power duet with Beyonce. Hot newcomer Drake, meanwhile, provides backing vocals on “Un-thinkable (I’m Ready).” Keys vocals are, as usual, spot-on throughout the disc and especially when they’re layered into evocative choral pieces. The percussionless “That’s How Strong My Love Is” is a change-of-pace standout, as is the gospel-flavored “How It Feels to Fly” and the early-’80s Prince flair of “This Bed.” “Like the Sea” drowns in its own metaphors, but fans who have driven Keys recent “Empire State of Mind” collaboration with Jay-Z to the top of the charts will find her un-rapped “Empire State of Mind (Part II)” refreshing. “Freedom” is never easy, but Keys certainly makes the pursuit worth hearing.
Various Artists, “Nine: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack” (Geffen) **
The allure of an album like this is to hear those we know primarily as movie stars — Daniel Day-Lewis, Penelope Cruz, Judi Dench, Kate Hudson, etc. — sing. They all acquit themselves reasonably well, but when more accomplished folks like film co-stars Fergie of the Black Eyed Peas and Marion Cotillard — who, after all, won an Oscar for playing Edith Piaf — exercise their pipes, it renders the others mere novelties that presumably play better in the context of the buzzed-about movie. That makes the “Nine” companion, which comes out digitally on Tuesday and in stores Dec. 22, something of a downloaders’ delight. Grab Cotillard singing “My Husband Makes Movies” and “Take It All” and Fergie’s “Quando Quando Quando” and “Be Italian,” and pick up the remix version of Kate Hudson singing “Cinema Italiano,” the Noisettes’ “Io Baci, Tu Baci” (one of four bonus tracks on the CD), and maybe Sophia Loren’s amusing cameo “Guarda La Luna.”
New & Noteworthy:
Animal Collective, “Fall Be Kind” (Domino): The New York group’s five-song EP features the first-ever licensed Grateful Dead sample, “Unbroken Chain,” for the track “What Would I Want? Sky.”
Pet Shop Boys, “Pet Shop Boys Christmas” (Parlophone): The Electronic pop duo wheels out a five-song Yuletide celebration, including new versions of the 1997 fan club single “It Doesn’t Often Snow at Christmas” and “All Over the World” from their latest studio album, “Yes.”
Shiny Toy Guns, “Girls Le Disko” (Ultra): The Oklahoma rockers’ first remix album sports 15 tracks treated by the likes of BT, the Teenagers, Hi-Deaf, Adam Freeland and others.
Robin Thicke, “Sex Therapy: The Experience (Explicit Deluxe)” (Interscope): This new edition of the R&B singer’s fourth studio album tosses some bonus tracks into the mix — within the existing song list and not just appended to the end.
Various Artists, “Bellydance Superstars, Vol. 7” (CIA/Copleand International): Another set of polyrhythmic tunes to wiggle your midriff to — except this international troupe does it far better.
Phil Vassar, “Traveling Circus” (Universal Records South): The piano-playing country singer and songwriter used his road band for his fifth album and asks “Where Have All the Pianos Gone?” on the closing track.
Soundtrack, “Avatar” (Atlantic): Leona Lewis has disavowed “I See You,” the lone vocal piece on the companion album to the new James Cameron film.
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