On the Record

As I Am, Alicia Keys

OK, the Best New Artist Grammy isn’t a total kiss of death. After all, Alicia Keys overcame that burden with a stellar sophomore CD and this, a decent third offering. She has what I’m looking for in pop singer: a good set of pipes, as well as either a talent to write catchy songs or a knowledge of where to find the people with catchy songs. Here, she has a piece in writing all of the tunes on the collection. She picked a winner with first single, the funky and soulful “No One.” The required collaborations aren’t too bad, either—even one with charisma-free John Mayer isn’t too bad. Overall, this collection doesn’t have a single weakness. Instead, it may just be Keys’s talent is familiar enough now that we want more out of her. Or maybe it’s because tracks such as “Like You’ll Never See Me Again” sound more like outtakes from Diamonds-and-Pearls-era Prince than prime new material. Still, Keys is light years ahead of most of the self-proclaimed divas that clog the charts.

Frank, Amy Winehouse

While we watch Amy Winehouse self-destruct in her newfound fame—in recent months, she left rehab via a helicopter; appeared on the streets of London barefoot; and, most frightening of all for her career, earned a Best New Artist Grammy nomination—we at least can find comfort in her music. On the heels of her terrific Back to Black album comes this reissue from 2003. (Side note: How an artist with a four-year-old album can be considered the “best new artist” is a mystery only the great philosophers have time to explain.) On Frank, we hear Winehouse finding her voice. The songs aren’t up to the same infectious level of the ones on Back to Black, but they do point to her considerable talents. She may have been a young unknown in 2003, but the album’s 13 tracks exhibit no shortage of confidence. After all, it takes a lot of gumption to carry out a tune like “Fuck Me Pumps,” which stays in the mind, despite the rather weak jazz melody and hip-hop beat. And when it all comes together—watch out. The slow, gravely vibe of album closer “Amy, Amy, Amy” works perfectly, giving the singer a chance to exit on a high note.

Hurrah A year of Ta-Dah, Scissor Sister

Your need for this DVD package depends on how much Scissor Sisters you really need in your life. (If you don’t like them, just stop reading now—nothing here will convince you of anything different.) If you are content with just the music, stick to the CDs. If you truly need to have a taste of the live Sisters experience, along with behind-the-scenes footage and other bonuses, you may want to give this a look. After all, where else can you see frontman Jake Shears bounce around in tight silver pants and a skintight mesh shirt (which begs the question: What’s the point of a skintight, see-through shirt?). The live set has a “looks cool, but it would so much more fun to be there” vibe to it. The DVD includes a documentary about the last year of the band (it has been crazy!), videos from Ta-Dah, a bonus acoustic set, and other bits and bobs. Again, definitely for the fans, but they should have some fun with this—or, at the very least, discover some new fashions that most probably never will be able to pull off.

Red Carpet Massacre, Duran Duran

Reviewing music isn’t a science. I’m not certain if it’s a true art (I’m sure musicians don’t think so, unless the review really digs their sound), but it definitely isn’t anything exact. Much of it is done by the gut. I made it about halfway through the new Duran Duran album before going “meh,” and tossing it aside. In hindsight, that seemed like a harsh assessment of such a signature pop act of the 1980s. So, I gave it another whirl. This time, it elevated itself—to something not quite good, but at least listenable in a forgettable sort of way. The problem is, the boys have traded the dramatic pop that made their senseless singles (what the hell is “Rio” about anyway?) such gooey fun. In its place is generic techno-pop. It’s not even up-to-date techno pop. Instead, it sounds like pieces that have been hanging around on someone’s hard drive since 1998, which, instead of purging, they decided to use here. At times, Duran Duran does rise above for a few moments of memorable musical drama—little touches that remind you why this band broke the hearts of teenyboppers everywhere—and then, it’s back into the electronic slush. Such a disappointment.

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