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Sunday, August 2, 2009

Alicia Keys: MTV Unplugged


ALICIA KEYS: MTV UNPLUGGED (2005)

1) Intro: Alicia's Prayer; 2) Karma; 3) Heartburn; 4) A Woman's Worth; 5) Unbreakable; 6) How Come You Don't Call Me; 7) If I Was Your Woman; 8) If I Ain't Got You; 9) Every Little Bit Hurts; 10) Streets Of New York (City Life); 11) Wild Horses; 12) Diary; 13) You Don't Know Me; 14) Stolen Moments; 15) Fallin'; 16) Love It Or Leave It Alone/Welcome To Jamrock.

It was a surprise — apparently, they're still doing these MTV Unplugged sessions long after the format has completely discredited itself. And after this album, one doesn't even need further proof. Please pardon me the offensive pun, but it's hard to help it: 'If this is Alicia Keys Unplugged, for God's sake, somebody plug her!'

Simply put, Unplugged is Keys' first live album, and it is very, very bad; if this is really what her average live show sounds like, my worst fears are coming true. Forget the "unplugged", actually: the lack of electric guitar is but a formality, since electric guitar only played a serious role on her retroish, funkier tunes, and she's not doing these here anyway. Other than that, you still have piano, horns, strings, electric bass, an Invincible Armada of backup singers and guests — a small, intimate session this is not. So I guess it must be quite close to her regular show.

So why bad? Stephen Thomas Erlewine of the All-Music Guide probably caught it best when he wrote: "This, more than either Songs In A Minor or The Diary, illustrates why Alicia Keys fits into the post-hip-hop soul world: she places groove and feel above the song'. I insist that she is not a genius songwriter, but a talented one — but you wouldn't really guess it from this never ending vamp-fest. Instead of making you feel the melody, she makes you feel the 'oohs' and 'aahs' and 'yeah, yeahs', often relegating the melody itself to backup singers.

And that wouldn't be so awful, perhaps, if, after submitting yourself to the studio albums, you didn't feel that this is all so terribly contrived. This whole performance is about letting people (or should we step over the chains of correctness and say "brainwashed MTV idiots"?) know just how awesomely cool you are, not about letting them in on your inner artist or even about promoting your material. This coolness is nurtured by a few "trendy" guests, e. g. a flaccid, sleep-inducing duet with Adam Levine from Maroon 5 on 'Wild Horses' and a truly hideous coda with DJs Mos Def and Common rapping about Alicia's charms to still more 'unh unhs' and 'yeah yeahs' on the latter's side, but even her own older, better standards are reduced to ugly Towers of Toughness. The one new song, 'Unbreakable', has likeable piano runs and great chorus hooks — but guess what, most of these hooks are delivered by the backup singers!

Perhaps the worst offender of all comes in the middle, in the shape of a Free Form Jazz / Improm­ptu Neo-Beatnik Poetry creation 'Streets Of New York (City Life)'. It stands very much at odds with all the other, fairly conventional, material, and is supposed to elevate Alicia's coolness to an entirely different level, but I just ask the question: 'If this is so hip and cool, why does everything else on here sound so bland and generic?' This pose of throwing a sonic bone to the 'musical intellectuals' and then going on to entertain the 'masses' is irritating to no end. Either you are a mainstream artist, or an avantgarde one, or you consistently propagate the compatibility of both approaches, but the idea of 'hey, I can be sophisticated every once in a while, too' stinks to high heaven of first-rate hypocrisy. And besides, some things are just NOT compatible. You cannot honestly hope to convince people when you present yourself as a tough hip-hop kid AND as an impressionistic neo-beatnik on the very same record. It's like a liberal arts professor from Berke­ley voting Republican.

Or perhaps the worst offender of all is that one line in 'Wild Horses' where she changed the lyrics. The original, the way the Stones did it, goes 'Let's do some living after we die'. The silly girl doesn't get it; she sings 'let's do some living before we die'. Just goes to show — the Stones will most definitely do some living after they die (well, Keith at least has obviously been dead for about twenty years now and still looks fine), but I have serious doubts about Alicia Keys in that respect. Sorry.

I don't even have to mention that this is a mighty thumbs down all the way, bar the minor enjoy­ability of 'Unbreakable' and the fact that 'Karma' and 'Heartburn' start things off in a generally good, rocking way before bringing the plane down in the swamp with a toothless rendition of 'Woman's Worth' and even lower from there. Unfortunately, it also kills off most hopes for Keys' artistic integrity: like so many promising, but spineless divas before her, she seems so happy with her newly established MTV-trash status that it is unlikely she is going to relinquish it any time soon.

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