- - Monday, November 26, 2012

Girl on Fire

Alicia Keys

RCA Records


Alicia Keys was the best-selling R&B artist of the past decade, selling more than 20 million albums in America alone. Times change and genres evolve, though, and R&B is a different animal today than it was in 2001, when Miss Keys released her first record.

Maybe that’s why she’s so intent on reinventing herself with “Girl on Fire.” The soulful, jazzy piano ballads that have been her bread and butter for years haven’t gone anywhere, but they’re just a piece of the puzzle on this eclectic album, which leans heavily on hip-hop and electro soul. A pulsing, throbbing beat runs beneath at least half of the songs, which physically shake Miss Keys off her piano stool and push her onto the dance floor.

The liner notes look like the guest list from some music-biz Christmas party. Dr. Dre and Salaam Remi, the latter of whom helped launch Amy Winehouse’s career, share production duties with at least five others. Nicki Minaj makes a guest appearance on the rap-heavy title track, and Maxwell sings along with Miss Keys‘ raspy, wholehearted croon on “Fire We Make.” Gary Clark, Jr., the industry’s newest blues guitar hero, stops by to play a few licks, too.

Miss Keys is still the queen on this star-studded album, although she doesn’t always sound comfortable in her new raiment. “Limitedless” has all the Caribbean flavor of a Rihanna single, but it sounds odd coming from Miss Keys, who sings the song with a faux Jamaican accent. Is imitation the only path to reinvention?

Luckily, Miss Keys blazes her own trail on songs such as “When It’s All Over,” a stylistic mash-up that pairs jazz drums and buzzing electronics with a gorgeous melody line. “New Day” does something similar, trading out the jazzy percussion for something more akin to a marching band. Then there’s “Listen To Your Heart,” a gorgeous slow jam steeped in D’Angelo’s slow, sultry dynamics.

Old-school fans are in luck, too. Miss Keys hasn’t forgotten her roots, and she throws a bone to longtime supporters on tunes such as “Tears Always Win,” a Motown-influenced soul number, and “Not Even the King,” a solo piano ballad about money, royalty and love.

“Girl on Fire” may be focused on the future, not the past, but it bridges the gap nicely. Here’s to another decade.


Serena Ryder



Like poutine and ice hockey, Serena Ryder has always been bigger in her native Canada than the U.S.

It’s our loss. On “Harmony,” the 28 year-old songwriter bounces from genre to genre like a chameleon, rasping her way through a soul ballad one minute and riding a thumping, indie-pop groove the next. She sounds comfortable and quirky throughout, and if stateside acceptance is what she’s craving, it doesn’t show. “Harmony” deserves our attention, but it isn’t an album that caters to the trends of the lower 48.

Her folk roots are on full display during the a cappella closer, “Nobody But You,” and the bluesy “Please Baby Please,” an aching, beautiful ballad laced with strings, co-ed harmonies and plenty of heartbreak. Those songs are gorgeous, but they mostly serve as the bridge between the old Miss Ryder — the one whose rootsy, acoustic-based albums have won several Juno Awards, the Canadian equivalent of the Grammy — and the poppy songbird whose voice soars through these ten new songs.

She channels Adele on “For You,” a smoky, sassy song with an arrangement that evokes a James Bond film, and commands her listeners to stomp their feet during the appropriately titled “Stompa,” which begins with a slow piano before moving into a buzzing, danceable verse. “Give yourself some room to move to the music you hear,” she sings. It’s good advice.

The bigger highlights are the tunes that show off her voice, a five-octave instrument with plenty of firepower in its upper register. “Fall” is the real show-stopper, and she rips into its sky-high chorus like a Motown diva, showing American listeners what they’ve been missing. Move over, Polaris; We’ve got a new Northern Star.

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