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The Listening Room: Alicia Keys, Rage Against The Machine and more...
"Girl On Fire"
Alicia Keys has been on fire since her six-times-platinum 2001 debut "Songs in A Minor," but you have to take songs like "New Day" and declarations such as "I'm not who I was before" with a certain grain of well-intended salt. The key to Keys' artistry is she never stays in one place very long, instead pursuing changes -- both subtle and dramatic. And "Girl On Fire" certainly comes in the wake of some dramatic changes in Keys' life, including marriage to fellow music-maker Swizz Beatz, the birth of their son Egypt (who appears on the album) and creative stretching such as directing a Broadway play and designing a line of tennis shoes. Back at the musical ranch Keys is stretching, too, on a broad-reaching set that starts with a classically flavored solo piano intro ("De Novo Adagio") and ends with a bombastic "hallelujah!" coda. In between Keys and a impressive arsenal of collaborators -- Beatz, Babyface, John Legend, Frank Ocean, upstart Emile Sande -- craft a sonic journey through the sultry jazz of "When It's Over," the hip-hop flavors of "New Day" and the Billy Squier-sampling "Girl On Fire (Inferno Version)" (with raps by Nicki Minaj), the cushy pillow talk with Maxwell on "Fire We Make" -- at least until Texas guitarist Gary Clark Jr. tears it up at song's end -- and the sweet melodicism of "Listen to Your Heart" and "That's When I Knew." The voice-and-piano tracks "Not Even the King" and "101" are particular standouts, as is "Tears Always Win," a buoyant old school soul-pop romp co-written with Bruno Mars. The album's only stumble, and a minor one, is "Limitedless," a messy, genre-blending exercise that seems more confused than ambitious. But "Girl On Fire" is still another estimable achievement that lives up to Keys' lofty standards and her audience's justifiably high expectations.
Rage Against the Machine, "Rage Against the Machine -- XX" (Epic/Legacy) ****
Rage Against the Machine's first album was one of the scariest -- in a good way -- rock has ever witnessed, and not just because of the gruesome infamous photo of a protesting Vietnamese Buddhist monk lighting himself on fire in 1963. The ferocity, inventiveness and, yes, rage of this early rap-rock masterpiece was downright frightening and galvanizing, a force-of-nature launch that's never really been equaled for sheer, pulverizing impact -- though many have tried. This 20th anniversary edition adds a second CD of original demos, which are just raw enough to feel like a fresh look and also contains a pair of worthwhile unreleased tracks, "Darkness of Greed" and "Clear the Lane," as well as two DVDs featuring promotional videos and live footage, including a homemade vide of the quartet's first public performance in 1991. Sure, it's familiar, but the new elements make a great thing that much better.
New & Noteworthy:
Asia, "Resonance" (Frontiers): The prog(ish) rock supergroup recorded this live CD/DVD set in 2010, on tour for its then-new "Omega" album and before this year's "XXX."
Bloodhound, "In the Name of Metal" (AFM): The headbanging Swedish sextet returns with a fifth album and another dozen anthems -- as well as a comically awfully cover.
Judy Collins, "Live at the Metropolitan Museum" (13 Amp): The folk veteran delivers some of her best-known work for a PBS special recorded in a particularly classy venue.
Future, "Pluto 3D" (A1/Free Bandz/Epic): The Atlanta rapper's debut album is packed with guest appearances by pals such as Drake, T.I., R. Kelly, Snoop Dog and more.
Robin Guthrie, "Fortune" (Darla): The fifth solo album from the former principal of the British ambient pop troupe the Cocteau Twins.
Hanzel Und Gretyl, "Born to be Heiled" (Metropolis): The first album in four years by the abrasive industrial rock all-star group comprised from New York.
Glee Cast, "Glee: The Music -- Season 4, Vol. 1" (Columbia): The Gleesters shoot typically wide on this latest compendium, from Billy Joel to Psy and One Direction to a mash-up of Simon & Garfunkel and Mumford & Sons.
Incantation, "Vanquish in Vengeance" (Listenable): The eighth studio album, and first in six years, from the Pennsylvania death metal quartet.
Nektar, "A Spoonful of Time" (Cleopatra): The German prog rockers delve into covers with help from pals from King Crimson, Asia, the Moody Blues, Yes, Symphony X and other bands.
Peter Ostroushko, "The Mando Chronicles" (Red House): Want to know about mandolin? Master player Ostroushko will certainly clue you in on its history and evolution over the course of this expansive three-CD set.
Radiators, "Last Watusi" (Radz): The hot and now defunct New Orleans group documents its final shows on this two-CD set. It's gone but should never be forgotten.
Rance Allen Group, "Amazing Grace" (Tyscot): The Monroe-formed gospel trio accompanies its latest set of new recordings with a DVD featuring a "Music Majors" documentary.
Therion, "Les Fleurs Du Mal" (self-released): The Swedish symphonic metal band includes a couple of Serge Gainsbourg tunes on this conceptual silver anniversary set.
Wu-Block, "Wu-Block" (eOne): Rappers Ghostface Killah and Sheek Louch team up for a 15-song set that includes features by Raekwon, Method Man, GZA, Erykah Badu, Jadakiss and others.
New Holiday Albums: Various Artists, "All-Star Salute to Christmas" (Cleopatra); Various Artists, "Merry Nickmas!" (Nickelodeon/Columbia)
From The Vaults: Canned Heat, "Boogie With Canned Heat (Deluxe Edition)" (Icono Classic); Curved Air, "Airwaves -- Live at the BBC Remastered/Live at the Paris Theatre" (Cleopatra); Great Big Sea, "Xx" (Warner Music); King Crimson, "Lark's Tongues in Aspic: 40th Anniversary Edition" (Discipline); Various Artists, "Nuggets: Original Artyfacts From the First Psychedelic Era" (Rhino)
Soundtracks: Forbidden Broadway, "Alive & Kicking: Cast Recording" (DRG)
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