aural pleasure

No one could live up to the hype that surrounded Alicia Keys when her debut album dropped in 2001. Barely out of her teens, she was expected to school the new breed about Donny Hathaway and Curtis Mayfield, take soul music into the 21st century, and, of course, make evil svengali Clive Davis a whopping pile of money.

Keys has certainly succeeded on the last count, but her recorded output generally promises more than it delivers. Part of the problem is that Keys’ air of confidence and preternaturally soulful rasp initially distracted us from the fact that her songwriting lagged far behind her performing ability. It was nice that she admired Prince and Stevie, and she could cover them like nobody’s business, but even her better songs tended to be bland retreads (“Fallin’” wasn’t an homage to James Brown, it was a rip-off).

But Keys is too gifted (and driven) to be dismissed. On the 2004 Verizon Ladies First Tour, she blew Beyonce and Missy Elliott off the stage. She similarly stole the show at the recent Live Earth festival by trading verses with country singer Keith Urban on a blistering version of “Gimme Shelter.” And she provided a welcome sense of class to the shameless exercise that was this year’s MTV Video Music Awards.

If these positive signals (and her four-year gap between studio albums) had you thinking that As I Am would be a major creative breakthrough, you’re in for a letdown. Keys’ observations about life and love are as trite as ever, and her ideas tend to be so derivative, even song titles such as “Superwoman” and “Prelude to a Kiss” are lifted from her inspirations/superiors. On the other hand, after a slow start, the album builds a head of steam, with Keys sounding more relaxed than ever, and with little sonic surprises that hint at an artist who’s finally found her sound (if not anything insightful to say with it).

“Wreckless Love” is a seductive plea in six-eight time, and the John Mayer co-write “Lesson Learned” is a lovely, slow-burning ballad. “Teenage Love Affair” feels like summer-pop bliss, with Keys method-acting her way to a giddy innocence we’ve never heard from her before.

Ultimately, Keys’ limitations and potential collide with the song “Where Do We Go From Here?” Beautifully sung, and surprisingly adventurous, it feels vaguely like Portishead tackling a reggae tune. At the same time, when she sings “All I can do is follow the tracks of my tears,” she does herself, and Smokey Robinson, no favors. So the Alicia Keys conundrum continues for at least one more album.

Gilbert Garcia

Every year Robert Pollard puts enough product on the street to call himself Medellin. He’s an artist built for the music industry’s bursting bubble – release cycles no longer constrain him, and thanks to Guided By Voices’ modest success, there’s a sturdy cult of fans to support him.

This year he released albums by three of his numerous running side-projects (Acid Ranch, The Takeovers, Circus Devils), his second album of comedic rants, a seven-song, 12-inch album, and these two “proper” Pollard albums. This would’ve seemed excessive 20 years ago, but given how cheap production has become (dovetailing nicely with Pollard’s avowedly lo-fi, first-take mentality), and the internet’s antidote for the label’s distribution stranglehold, why not?

Each of the projects sound sufficiently different. In fact, neither of the new albums sounds particularly like last year’s pair, the power-pop Normal Happiness or the darkly toned double album From A Compound Eye. Pollard compared them to the Beatles and the Stones, and while over-simplistic, that comparison gets to the essence — one’s catchier, the other’s more rocking.

Concision has always been one of Pollard’s selling points – only three of the albums’ 33 tracks cross the three-minute mark. While pocked with a typical Pollard quotient of throwaways, both albums boast at least a half-dozen winners. The chunky, slashing Gargoyle is highlighted by its jagged opener, “The Killers,” which sounds like Rockpile, the glam-stomp rave-up “Psycho-Inertia;” the oddly alluring weirdness of “Butcher Man;” and the astounding GBV-ish “Feel Not Crushed.”

Coast to Coast isn’t as immediately enticing. The arrangements are flavored by Pollard’s prog-pop tendencies, producing relatively disjointed, windy compositions that take time to appreciate. The best are the insistent, lilting ballad “Current Desperation (Angels Speak of Nothing),” which harks back to mid-’90s GBV, and the jangling “Miles Under the Skin.” In the latter song, Pollard promises: “When you insist on more/ when I stare at the floor/ I’ll do it convincingly.”

Chris Parker

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