Album reviews: Alicia Keys and Bad Brains
"New Day." "101." "Brand New Me." The song titles on Alicia Keys' fifth studio album suggest she's exploring previously untouched ground: perhaps her life with producer Swizz Beatz, whom she married in 2010, or the son she gave birth to later that year. What's more, "Girl on Fire" finds Keys assembling an impressive new crew of forward-looking collaborators, including Emeli Sande, Frank Ocean and Jamie Smith of the xx. In the slow-burning "Fire We Make," she doubles down on the here-and-now vibe, trading breathy vocal lines with Maxwell over fuzzy soul-blues guitar by Gary Clark Jr.
Yet in spite of that fresh blood, "Girl on Fire" basically delivers the same payload as Keys' other albums; it's a collection of handsomely crafted, gorgeously sung ballads interrupted by several overworked anthems about the value of perseverance.
The familiarity of that formula doesn't diminish "Tears Always Win," a Motown-crinkly lament that Keys co-wrote with Bruno Mars, or the folky, Babyface-produced "That's When I Knew." Nor does it take away from the spacey loveliness of "Listen to Your Heart," which John Legend helped pen.
But there's something so typical about the booming title track and "New Day" — both of which feel cut from the same cloth as "No One" and "Doesn't Mean Anything" — that it's hard to hear what Keys is trying to tell us.
— Mikael Wood
There's a sample on the new Bad Brains album, "Into the Future," that perfectly captures the influential D.C. punk band's early contact with audiences: "We figured if they didn't mind us being black, we didn't mind them being white." The statement, like the band, is an incitement, an acknowledgment of the occasionally uneasy relationship among punk, metal and race in the genre's formative years.
It didn't hurt that Bad Brains was one of the most incendiary of the first-generation hard-core punk bands, and that the group went on to influence a wealth of later acts, including the Beastie Boys, TV on the Radio and the Mars Volta. Formed in 1977, Bad Brains — singer H.R., guitarist Dr. Know, bassist-producer Darryl Jenifer and drummer Earl Hudson — offers a heavy blend of riffage and Rastafarianism on its first studio album in five years.
As on the band's classic self-titled debut and its oft-overlooked '86 metal-punk-reggae album "I Against I," the four musicians on "Into the Future" present brutal songs that often travel on meandering paths.
"Youth of Today" starts hard and ends dubby, and "Come Down" is as ferocious a hard-core wind sprint as anything the band's ever done. As always, singer H.R. is as much a preacher as a singer, and the constant proselytizing about Jah gets a little old — but complaining about it is like knocking Kirk Franklin for singing about Jesus.
It's best to sit back and let the power of visionary punk rock wash over you.
— Randall Roberts