Alicia Keys, "Girl on Fire" (RCA)
Keys' fifth album has two modes: lofty and submerged. Guess which one leads to better songs?
Two years ago, after entering a soft-pop cul-de-sac (documented on 2009's "The Element of Freedom"), Keys married producer Swizz Beatz and gave birth to a boy named Egypt. The subtext of "Girl on Fire," full of collaborations with other singer/songwriters, is that marriage and motherhood have given her new freedom, confidence and momentum.
But it's a measure of how powerful parenthood is that it generates so many clichés. The new songs that push that subtext out front -- including the album's singles, the ballad "Brand New Me" (one of three self-actualizing, semi-autobiographical narratives written with Scottish songwriter Emeli Sandé) and the preening title song, laid over the drum thwack of Billy Squier's "Big Beat" -- quickly grow trite, in words and music. It's the tracks in which Keys seems to pay attention to a quieter story rather than building new pedestals for herself that suggest something new for her.
These songs lean on old ingredients but use them well. There are a couple with late-1990s house-music piano loops: "Listen to Your Heart," written with John Legend, and "When It's All Over," produced with Jamie xx. There's "Fire We Make," a slow jam with handclaps for downbeats, Maxwell singing entreaties entirely in falsetto and a guitar solo of consequence by Gary Clark Jr. There's "Tears Always Win," a sort of ambient Southern-soul track written with Bruno Mars.
And there's "One Thing," written with Frank Ocean, a slow, unheroic and beautiful R&B song. The narrator's imperfect man has left her. He's going off to live in the house his father left him, and he didn't invite her along. She's mad, but she's respectful of his decision. You don't know what to make of it all, and seemingly neither does she. That's parenthood, too.
BEN RATLIFF, NEW YORK TIMES
Hank Williams, "The Lost Concerts" (Time Life)
This CD presents two 1952 shows by Williams -- May 4 at Niagara Falls and July 13 in West Grove, Pa. It also includes a 1951 radio interview. The recordings, billed as the only known concert tapes of the country immortal, are pretty primitive, as you can imagine. But Williams' vitality and charisma come through loud and clear. He's loose and offhandedly revealing with his patter and band introductions -- he's backed by two of his Drifting Cowboys (steel guitarist Don Helms and fiddler Jerry Rivers) as well as local musicians. When it comes to the music, however, Williams is intensely focused, whether it's the gospel of "Are You Walkin' and a-Talkin' for the Lord," the aching balladry of "Lonesome Whistle," the Luke the Drifter narrative "The Funeral" or the up-tempo romp of "Lovesick Blues."
Introducing "Cold, Cold Heart" in Niagara Falls and describing its vast crossover success as a once-in-a-lifetime achievement, Williams tells the audience, "I can go die now and get it over with." Less than eight months later, he would be dead, at 29.
NICK CRISTIANO, PHILADELPHIA INQUIRER