ALICIA KEYS “Girl On Fire”
“Girl on Fire:”? Grabby title, and the song of the same name hangs its hat on a big, belted-out hook that demands attention.
It’s a misleading sobriquet, though, for Alicia Keys’ fifth album, a bounce-back from the mid-career rut of 2007’s “As I Am” and 2009’s “The Element Of Freedom.” Maybe marriage and motherhood have something to do with it - her son Egypt shows up acting cutesy at the end of “When It’s All Over” - but “Girl On Fire” is marked more by confidently composed maturity than an effort to set the night ablaze.
Sure, there are some silly, de rigueur concessions to the marketplace, such as the Nicki Minaj rap appended to the title track, or the knotty reggae rhythm that Keys awkwardly navigates at the start of the clumsily titled “Limitedless.” But Keys mostly plays to her strengths here. She starts off with the piano-tinkling “De Novo Adagio” intro, teams up effectively with both Maxwell and blues guitarist Gary Clark Jr. on “Fire We Make,” digs into a gospel groove on “Not Even the King,” and, most effectively, delivers a just-right raspy soul vocal on “Tears Always Win,” a huge hit-to-be cowritten with Bruno Mars.
KID ROCK “Rebel Soul”
Heartland rock and country epics - that was Kid Rock, vintage 2010. Kid’s “Born Free” that year was a good one, filled with the grandeur, grit and fresh air of a Bob Seger record, without Kid’s usual hip-hop lean or strip-club soliloquies. Problem was, few people bought into the idea of a Chevy truck-driving, wind-in-your-hair-styled Kid. They like their Kid with dirty hair and a dirtier mind.
So he gave it to them.
“Rebel Soul” is more clichi-driven than Rock’s foul, funkier previous albums. Then again, you don’t come to Kid’s albums for innovation. You come for tried-and-true rock-out axioms, ideas as worn as old motorcycle boots, and how Kid somehow makes them inviting. The churning, bass-heavy sound behind the yowling Rock is crusty and distorted - a perfect fit for the sleaze factor of cuts like “Cocaine and Gin.” Throw some hip-hop and a hot tub into that equation? A tune like “Cucci Galore.” Replace sex and drugs with cars, and there’s the rich Corinthian leather of “3 CATT Boogie.”
No matter how tacky or tawdry, there’s always an earnest Kid trying to break through on tunes like “God Save Rock n Roll.” As long as it’s nasty, let him try.
Ke$ha burst onto the scene with 2009’s “Animal,” a wonderland of bourbon-breath’d, glitter-flecked, dance-all-night moral relativists. “Warrior,” her guest-laden follow-up, begins on a similar course. Lead single “Die Young” is a classic live-for-the-party anthem, while the Iggy Pop duet “Dirty Love” is deliciously, almost uncomfortably filthy. But cracks begin to show in Ke$ha’s neon body paint, through which we can see a beating, vulnerable heart. The house thumper “Wherever You Are” and the Strokes-assisted “Only Wanna Dance With You” celebrate love of the nonfleeting variety. And the Ben Folds/ Flaming Lips-aided deluxe edition track “Past Lives” chronicles an oddball romance for the ages. Even the kiss-off “Thinking Of You” reveals previously uncharted depths. While not a completely seamless process, the evolution of Ke$ha is fascinating to watch.
SCOTT WALKER “Bish Bosch”
“Bish Bosch” takes its name in part from Hieronymus Bosch, the 15th-century Dutch painter known for his phantasmagorical and sometimes grotesque triptychs. He’s an apt reference point for the world Scott Walker conjures on his first album since 2006’s Drift. Walker, an American revered in Britain since his hits with the Walker Brothers in the mid-’60s, has come far since “The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore.” “Bish Bosch” is a willfully inaccessible, darkly obfuscating album.
Walker’s dramatic baritone is intact at age 69, but he’s using it not as a romantic crooner but as an oracle from hellish depths. Walker doesn’t sing so much as intone the fragmented images, by turns poetic, scatological, and arcane; the music is an industrial blend of synthesizer squeals, abrasive guitar bursts, and martial drum crashes, punctuated by ominous quiet and literalist sounds of knives sharpening and grotesque bodily functions. One piece lasts more than 21 minutes. These aren’t songs so much as avant-garde theater pieces: discomforting, uncompromising, and alienating.