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Saturday, July 18, 2009

Alicia Keys: Songs In A Minor


1) Piano & I (intro); 2) Girlfriend; 3) How Come You Don't Call Me; 4) Fallin'; 5) Troubles; 6) Rock Wit U; 7) A Woman's Worth; 8) Jane Doe; 9) Goodbye; 10) The Life; 11) Mr. Man (duet with Jimmy Cozier); 12) Never Felt This Way (Interlude); 13) Butterflyz; 14) Why Do I Feel So Sad; 15) Caged Bird (outro); 16) Lovin' U [unlisted track].

Artists who write their own material deserve respect. Before engaging in a predictable trashing of young, aspiring, sexy, thoughtful Alicia Keys' debut album, ask yourself the question: what have you actually written? Have you ever recorded a sixty-minute long album of your own songs, not to mention sung and played piano on it? If no, shut up and listen; if yes, you should probably know how hard it is in the first place.

If you keep repeating this mantra over and over again while listening to Songs In A Minor, chan­ces are you'll approach it with an unbiased mind and spot the few drops of goodness that are contained therein. That Alicia Keys wasn't just a nobody who turned up in a recording studio by chance, to me, is obvious. Even disregarding her delightfully marketable appearance, she, like fellow soulster Mariah Carey, was selling much more than the body (not that there's anything wrong with the body): she can sing, she can play, and she can write songs, and she probably does all three better than your average Joe from the next corner, so why not make a record?

The bad news: "better" does not equal "really well". Armies of MTV divas have this kind of pipe set; her piano playing is efficient but she's not even on an Elton John level and she probably knows it; and writing songs? well, it doesn't take a tremendous lot of talent to write generic R'n'B tunes, especially with a little help from one's friends in the studio. So the only hope here is to get by on a combination of all three, which is truly not something that is frequently encountered in the world of contemporary R'n'B.

Alas, although mainstream critics predictably fell over this combination, and although the very sound of it doesn't drive me bonkers, Songs In A Minor falls victim to the commonest crime in the world: it is very, very boring. Dull, easy grooves; dull, unconvincing hooks (if any); dull, cheap sentiments; dull everything. Maybe this is, in large part, due to the fact that R'n'B in the last decade has been even deader than rock, and that the stinky, stagnating chains of its conventions chew through every ounce of talent. But it is more likely still that Alicia just doesn't have the right quantity of ounces, if you know what I mean.

Two songs that give me pleasure come right after each other in the middle: they are 'Rock Wit U', an excellent tribute to 70s R'n'B right down to all the syncopation tricks and wah-wah guitars (unfortunately, it only makes me yearn for going back to 70s R'n'B instead), and 'A Woman's Worth', where, once you discard the lecturing feminist lyrics, the chorus comes through as dense, tense, and deliciously neurotic (and catchy).

No other songs give me pleasure, with the possible — and frightening! — exception of the elec­tric piano-and-vocal album closer 'Caged Bird', which should scare people away (teenage girls usually sing stuff like that auditioning for American Idol) but, in my case at least, skilfully tugs at some particularly misplaced nerve and makes me emotional. (Please don't tell me that 'she's so rare and beautiful' is in the least autobiographical, please).

The big hit single was 'Fallin'; it didn't register with me at all, but I do remember that the vocals were overdubbed in an interesting way. (Connections with 'It's A Man's Man's Man's World' have been spotted by knowledgeable people as well; not sure it's a good thing). On the "hidden" track 'Lovin' U', she (kinda sorta) tries to be like 60s-era Aretha Franklin, but the only reason you have to listen to her being Aretha Frank­lin is if you think Aretha Franklin is only worth listening to when she's young and available for auto­graphs next door. Me, I have no problem putting on some old album from 1970 instead, because, let's face it, Alicia's decibels just don't register on Aretha's scale.

So turn this over to Mr. Brain, who refuses to recognize "artistic integrity" in all this shenanigan (and actually threatens to sue on account of bad taste and banal "artistic" decisions, like kicking things off with a reference to 'Moonlight Sonata', of all things! where's Beethoven and where's Alicia Keys?), and then to Mr. Heart, who has just recovered from a nice nap in the corner, as both of them give the record a crunchy thumbs down. There might have been some semi-good reason to listen to this in 2001; today, any such reason has to be recovered from deep down the drain.

Check "Songs In A Minor" (CD) on Amazon
Check "Songs In A Minor" (MP3) on Amazon

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