BBC – Music – Review of Alicia Keys

The Alicia Keys we find on Girl on Fire is much removed from how we left her on 2009’s The Element of Freedom, a rumination on the death of her grandmother and the break-up of a relationship.

For the first album of her 30s, Keys is now married (to producer-rapper Swizz Beatz) and the proud mother of a young son. And understandably, the record takes this as its centre.

For all its big beats and stellar collaborations (and there are many: Frank Ocean, Emile Sandé, Darkchild, Babyface and Salaam Remi to name a few), the core of the album is Keys’ remarkable voice and simple songwriting.

The tone is set by the piano introduction, a sombre reflective piece, and then the defiant, nose-thumbing Brand New Me which makes Keys’ stance clear when she sings: “It’s been a while, I’m not who I was before.”

Girl on Fire is classic Keys at her most commercial.  The beautiful, sensual Fire We Make, a duet with Maxwell, is all muted horns and synth bass, a textbook quiet storm. The more you hear this track, the deeper you fall in love with it.

Tears Always Win, co-written by Bruno Mars, is a convincing soul/gospel pastiche, played with a small band.

Not Even the King, written with Sandé, is probably the key track. Shorn of all bangs and crashes, it is a straightforward piano ballad, and although exploring the well-worn analogy of how being rich in love is better than all the world’s money (“Your arms around me / Worth more than a Kingdom”), it is strangely and sweetly affecting.

The credits say that Girl on Fire was “conceptualised and produced” by Keys. When you look at other artists of a similar ilk, you know that she hasn’t just dropped in to record with the latest producer.

As a result, Girl on Fire is a smart album, maintaining the high standards set on The Element of Freedom. It showcases her as a maturing performer and keeps her there or thereabouts alongside Beyoncé as the world’s leading contemporary stylist of mainstream RnB.

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This album is reviewed on Jo Whiley’s Radio 2 show on 3 December 2012

BBC – Music – Review of Ke$ha

Back in 2009, when she released her debut single TiK ToK, Ke$ha presented herself as wilfully trashy. Here was a pop singer who’d inserted a dollar sign into her stage name and sang about brushing her teeth with a bottle of whiskey.

However, her debut album Animal turned out to be against-the-odds enjoyable. It matched hooks with humour, and made the most of pop’s new obsession with heavily Auto-Tuned vocals. Ke$ha may have been silly, but she wasn’t stupid.

Even so, it’s perhaps surprising that she’s showing signs of artistic growth. Like her debut, Warrior is a collection of shamelessly commercial electro-pop, but on several songs, Ke$ha works in her love of 1970s rock.

Lead single Die Young begins with the sound of an acoustic guitar, while Thinking of You mixes punky riffs with her usual synths. She even drafts in Iggy Pop for a ridiculous duet called Dirty Love.

It’s one of several welcome surprises on the album. Love Into the Light is a smoky 1980s-style slowie with drum sounds perfect for the Cadbury’s gorilla. Only Wanna Dance With You sounds like Ke$ha covering a Strokes single, and even features two members of the New York indie band – for a supposedly low-rent pop singer, Ke$ha has a lot of trendy mates. Meanwhile, Wonderland is a country-tinged ballad which proves she can sing without Auto-Tune.

Perhaps inevitably, several tracks feature the dreaded dubstep breakdown, surely 2012’s most overused trend. And more troublingly, one or two songs sound very similar to recent hits by Katy Perry, with whom Ke$ha shares a producer (Dr Luke).

But taken as a whole, this is another surprisingly enjoyable album from a pop singer who has managed to broaden her approach without losing her USP.

In fact, Ke$ha’s trademark trashiness is still disturbingly infectious. It’s hard not to smile when she sings about getting it on with a ghost, or rhymes “sabre-toothed tiger” with “warm Budweiser”.  However, even Iggy Pop has no answer to Ke$ha’s strangest come-on from their flirty duet: “Champagne tastes like p*** to me.”

BBC – Music – Review of Neil Diamond

The title “The Very Best of Neil Diamond” can mean two things. On the one hand, it’s a self-explanatory title for one of music’s most enduring, hit-encrusted and best-loved figureheads.

On the other, it also happens to be the title of one Welsh pop experimenters Super Furry Animals’ best songs of recent years. Either way, it’s pretty much a winner.

The album itself is certainly more than a whistle-stop tour of the hits. We get early gems, self-penned smashes for others (it’s easy to forget that Diamond wrote both The Monkees’ I’m a Believer and Red Red Wine) and travel right through the treacle that defined his middle period until his rootsy Rick Rubin-produced efforts from 2005 and beyond.

That being the case, you can see Diamond at his very best and his very worst.

Love on the Rocks, taken from the soundtrack of The Jazz Singer (in which Diamond starred, to miserable reviews) emits a very affected melancholy and the Barbra Streisand duet You Don’t Bring Me Flowers is wince-inducingly slow and indulgent, but none of that matters.

In fact, a whole career packed with cheese, Vegas-style backing bands and incredible suits cannot dim the effect of I Am… I Said from 1971 – it is his pinnacle of integrity and honesty. 

Similarly, the bounce of Cherry Cherry and the menace and regret of Girl, You’ll Be a Woman Soon show just how devastating Diamond can be. It’s those examples that begin to erase the memory of the schmaltzy missteps. When his songs are plagued by self-doubt, naivety and the sense that everything is not okay, they suddenly become urgently listenable, dramatic little works of art. 

And despite its awful title, Hell Yeah (from the Rubin-produced album 12 Songs) is one of the very best here – closing the whole collection with a song that doesn’t just ape the Johnny Cash American Recordings, but cements Diamond firmly in the sound of today. His tight-throated grizzle chimes over gentle accordion: “Still I think about myself as a lucky old dreamer.”

Just be prepared: The Very Best of Neil Diamond is exactly that, but not all the way through.

BBC – Music – Review of T. Rex

There’s never been a cooler pop group than T. Rex, and that’s almost certainly a provable fact. 

After ex-mod Mark Feld had changed his name to Marc Bolan, drifting through shock-rockers John’s Children and into his own hippy acoustic duo Tyrannosaurus Rex (whose albums had titles longer than some band’s careers, and featured narratives by John Peel), he suddenly got the urge to become a pop star again.

On early singles like Hot Love and Ride a White Swan, he began to mix early rock’n’roll with Tolkienesque imagery. And by the time of T. Rex’s 1971 set Electric Warrior, Bolan was able to write singles like Get It On and Jeepster, which were as rock as anything anyone had ever made.

By now he’d also invented glam rock (aka glitter rock) and had inspired his old friend and rival David Bowie to also ditch the flares and become an alien rock god (Bowie’s Lady Stardust is about Bolan), while becoming pop royalty.

Ringo Starr filmed him, Elton John jammed with him – all he needed now was a chart-topping, brilliant follow-up to Electric Warrior.

With The Slider, he achieved that easily. It contains two No.1 singles, the great Telegram Sam and Metal Guru, as well as the fantastic Ballrooms of Mars and the marvelously dreamy title track. Everything else is what Bolan might well have called a groovy little rocker.

Producer Tony Visconti (who seemed to flit from Bolan to Bowie and back throughout the decade) created a sound that mixed strings and guitars in catchy fast hooks while ex-Turtles Flo and Eddie provided extraordinary backing vocals.

It’s a perfect album, rock and pop combined concisely and excitingly. Even the cover – Bolan in a top hat – gave Slash something to look like several years later.

This box set, remastered by Visconti, features the original album, demos and B sides (Bolan prefigured punk rock in his genius with a flipside), and comes with a DVD stuffed with TV appearances, promo footage and interviews. There’s also a poster, a badge and, er, a rosette. It’s all brilliant – and best of all, you only need disc 1.

BBC – Music – Review of Scott Walker

Scott Walker’s been at it for over 50 years, producing his more challenging work for the best part of half of that. He scored his first chart-topper in 1965, when The Walker Brothers’ Make It Easy on Yourself held off competition from Sonny & Cher, Ken Dodd and The Rolling Stones.

But these days, Walker is more likely to be playing darts and studying dictators than discussing a revivalist 60s package tour.

Impressionistic in both sound and “lyric”, Bish Bosch, Walker’s 14th studio album, offers collage and an abstract form of rhythm – his own rhythm. It’s propulsive, carrying an urge, the need to examine the debris of mostly violent actions.  

It starts with pummelling drums, fiery guitar licks and “plucking feathers from a swansong” in See You Don’t Bump His Head. Then, the almost suite-like Corps De Blah begins with electronic textures before a sampled dog bark and murky rock kicks in. Soon, the sounds of musique concrete, seagulls, screechy strings and gothy stomps come in and out to accessorise the next batch of prose.

Before long Bish Bosch resembles the sort of thing old Radiohead fans think Radiohead sound like today. Tar features knife sharpening as percussion, and the catchy SDSS1416+13B throws free jazz, thrash metal, sirens and what might be a staple gun into the mix.

The album closes with a xylophone plinking its way through Jingle Bells – in reference to the execution of Romanian politician Nicolae Ceaușescu in December 1989. Obviously.

Maybe Walker’s having a riot. Lines such as “Here’s to a lousy life”, “I want to forget you just the way you are”, and “I really hope your face clears up” suggests he’s more fun than he makes out. And what keeps you going is that voice; the voice that pulled you in all those years ago.

That this is, says the man himself, the third of a trilogy (after 1995’s Tilt and 2006’s The Drift) perhaps means that Walker’s next album will feature less of the meat-punching, and some more accessible material.

Right now, though, Bish Bosch needs to be played loud; and it’s more of an installation piece than a shuffle-friendly commute record. It might not encourage repeat plays, but to dismiss it as a racket is to do it, and its maker, a huge disservice.

BBC – Music – Review of Bad Brains

Amongst the original US hardcore trailblazers of the 80s underground, no band was more incendiary or more controversial than Bad Brains.

The fiery meld of jazz chops, demonic hyperspeed and devotional intensity they dealt out, along with their equal skill with both blistering punk and beatific reggae, have rightly made them the stuff of reverence and legend. 

Yet it’s been a rocky road since the last Bad Brains album anyone could reasonably call a classic, 1989’s Quickness. And while recent live shows have shown the band to be as finely honed a destructive unit as ever, vocalist and soothsayer H.R. has proven himself to be a dangerous liability, frequently mumbling his way impassively through their back catalogue, unsure of which planet he’s meant to be broadcasting from.

True to form, Into the Future, despite boasting all the original members that first kicked hardcore into orbit some 30 years hence, betrays the sound of a unique band cursed by a slightly uneasy relationship with their own past.

Certainly, though, it rockets out of the starting gates in formidable fashion. The frantic cosmic hardcore of the title track and the loose-limbed groove of Popcorn display all the genre-splicing fury of yore; and H.R.’s trademark charismatic whine is illustrative of a man mercifully on the correct wavelength.

Yet while the band’s freakish chemistry is in abundance, they occasionally struggle to maintain this fortitude for the album’s 37 minutes. The alluringly odd jazz-rock of Fun is a thrilling collision of shapes, but by-numbers reggae jams like the meandering Jah Love and perfunctory breakneck workouts like Suck Sess display an unfortunate tendency to spin their wheels. 

Most puzzling of all, a series of spoken-word samples peppering this album, some apparently from vintage interviews, seem to be specifically designed to underline the revolutionary nature of Bad Brains’ assault. Yet despite the band’s tendency towards rasta-style self-aggrandisement, this display of vainglory sits uneasily next to both the sometimes slightly half-baked nature of this effort and, indeed, its title.

These sky-surfing legends may have another great album in ’em yet, but for all its intermittently irie moments, Into the Future isn’t it. 

BBC – Music – Review of ABBA

In April 1975, ABBA were worried that the heady days were over. Waterloo, their song about one girl’s surrender in the battle of love, had won the Eurovision Contest 12 long months earlier. Reviews of the group had been positive – even Rolling Stone had said they were putting “new life into… cartoon pop” – but recent UK singles had flopped, and tours were not selling out.

Time then, for a difficult third album featuring reggae, prog, rock and funk, and somewhere in the middle, a giddy SOS. “Here I go again,” the first track begins. How could we resist them?

At first, it’s odd to think that this was the album that broke Sweden’s biggest band; it dashes from genre to genre, with a few massive hits in the middle.

Mamma Mia is now so familiar it’s like a nursery rhyme. That chirpy marimba and that chorus – the hooks keeping coming and coming – are now a vital part of pop’s DNA.

In it, we find one of ABBA’s trademark sad, layered stories, bubbly and joyous to the ear, but full of darker details about “slammed doors”, and an “angry and sad” woman that’s “not that strong”. Lyrical depth and shiny surfaces: here are ABBA, early on, refining their magical formula.

This gets repeated elsewhere, with mixed results. Hey, Hey Helen begins with crunchy guitars before shocking with the tale of a woman that’s left her husband and children.

Bang-A-Boomerang and I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do stick to bouncier pop, the former brimming with advice about compromise within marriage, the latter using the wedding declaration to mask lyrics teeming with insecurity.

Then they play with sound. Tropical Loveland’s pop-reggae crossover shows forward thinking but little in way of fabulousness; Intermezzo No 1’s Yes-style synth-opus is ridiculous, but occasionally rewarding. Rock Me’s late entry into the glam canon suits the band better, Björn’s screechin’-and-a-squealin’ providing particular pleasures.

ABBA doubters will be pleasantly surprised to find the band’s desire to experiment here. If that’s you, breathe deep and plunge into their back catalogue – there’s plenty more depth to explore.

Long-term fans will enjoy the accompanying DVD, and be reminded of an interesting juncture in the quartet’s career. As they tilted between failure and success, they threw everything into the mix. Before long, they would have the whole world in front of them.

BBC – Music – Review of The Jam

By 1982, Paul Weller’s sheened but bristling craftsmanship had turned The Jam into a hitherto unknown phenomenon: a band that topped the charts with songs of uncompromising social commentary sung in Estuary English.

Yet Weller wasn’t satisfied, and in retrospect The Gift was the first major manifestation of his chafing at the Jam’s supposed restrictions, something that would culminate in the group’s dissolution at year’s end.

The album’s lead-off double-A-sided single augured well. Town Called Malice co-opted Motown grooves for the mission of documenting the aching dreariness of poverty, though impressively wasn’t without humour. Precious was a lashing love-struck funk workout.

However, they transpired to be the only great tracks on The Gift.

Though the more soul-inflected material was supposed to be an advance, the album seemed a regression. John Harris’ liner notes for this deluxe two-CD edition politely suggest the blame lies with drummer Rick Buckler and bassist Bruce Foxton not being sufficiently adept to tackle anything but their usual punk and pop-rock.

In fact, that superb rhythm section is less culpable than Weller’s sub-standard songs. The wispy Ghosts shows Weller has become self-conscious about his conferred role of Voice of a Generation. The staccato Just Who Is the 5 O’Clock Hero is an ersatz Town Called Malice.

The jolly calypso backing of The Planner’s Dream Goes Wrong doesn’t work in conjunction with its denunciation of tower blocks. The title track is a life-affirming anthem so forced that it has overdubbed whistles. Tellingly, Circus – a fine pulsating Foxton instrumental – seems to say more than Weller’s grand statements.

Also wanting is the production. Pete Wilson, for whom The Jam had dispensed with the iridescent hand of Vic Coppersmith-Heaven, double-tracks Weller’s voice to suffocating effect, while on “Trans-Global Express” he simply buries it.

The Deluxe Edition usefully rounds up non-album tracks of the period, including the 12-inch version of Precious and the excellent swansong Beat Surrender EP. The demo versions of the album’s songs are interesting (and revealingly less stultifying than the finished masters).

Neither, though, can disguise the fact that this was a sad album finale for a remarkable band.

BBC – Music – Review of Beres Hammond

The comfy but earthy governor of grown-up reggae, Beres Hammond has long been the last word in laid-back lovers serenades. However, he also has views on other matters. So his 20th album is a gentle grower sprawling across two carefully demarcated “love”- and “life”-oriented discs.

Since he blossomed from Zap Pow frontman in the 1970s to computer-age megastar, Beres can work at his chosen pace – hence the four-year gap between 2008’s A Moment in Time and this set. Most tracks here are self-produced with a top-flight team of engineers and musicians, many of whom are producers in their own right.

Their rhythms are a fitting live/digital balance, sitting between the skeletal beats of his rise and the increasingly lush organic sound of more recent albums. They sometimes cross the line from jaunty and playful to twee, yet the grain-and-strain of Beres’ voice and his ability to fashion a lyrically strong song from the most basic or over-refined backing can’t help but impress.

Hammond is a deft depicter of situations – such as a party (the self-aware while self-deprecating Lonely Fellow) or sound-system dance (the thumping rub-a-dub of Prime Time).

He’s also wise on disc 2’s bigger picture, giving avuncular chastisements to the pessimistic (the US soul-soaked Still Searching) or morally weak (Family, engineered by Tuff Gong’s Errol Brown with Sly & Robbie on drums and bass).

Even when calling out fakers and critics on the Love Me Forever-rhythmed title track – with its worrying suggestion “I’m leaving” – his message is magnanimous love. Elsewhere, the socially conscious Don’t You Feel Like Dancing and the cheeky Can’t Waste No Time represent timely “Jamaica 50” forays into ska.

But Beres’ strongest statements are on familiar territory – the muscular lovers of In My Arms (co-produced by Bulby York) and the synth-string-driven No Candle Light (with Donovan Germain, who produced 1990’s smash Tempted to Touch).

As an introduction to the man, there’s probably a bit too much Beres here for one sitting. However, fans who have been waiting for four years should be overjoyed at two relaxed, thoughtful helpings of Hammond side-by-side.

BBC – Music – Review of Heatwave

Formed in Germany by US serviceman Johnnie Wilder, and bolstered by the addition of songwriter Rod Temperton, Heatwave honed their craft in mid-70s London.

Once their third single, Boogie Nights, became an enormous hit on both sides of the Atlantic, the group were propelled from being relative unknowns to overnight sensations.

Their second album, 1978’s Central Heating, was recorded amid intense touring schedules just as their fame was breaking. It’s an exciting record, where the group have everything to prove.

Like their 1976 debut, Too Hot To Handle, this album was written largely by Temperton, who by now had his tight, snappy disco-R&B down pat. Put the Word Out follows the template set by Boogie Nights, emerging out of a jam, before introducing a tightly woven funk.

Transatlantic hit The Groove Line, with its incessant rhythm, sweet vocals and message of unity, inspired much in-club formation dancing and maintained their momentum.

But it’s not all a whirl round the dancefloor: The Star of a Story is a sensual down-tempo groove not a million miles away from Michael Jackson’s Baby Be Mine, written by Temperton for Thriller four years later. It showcases the unmistakable vocal blend between the Wilder brothers and sounds like a London-via-Chicago version of Rotary Connection’s I Am the Black Gold of the Sun.

Lead vocalist Johnnie Wilder wrote two songs, the second of which, Mind Blowing Decisions, became one of the group’s most highly regarded songs. And they could cut it live, too. The band toured America supporting heavyweights and peers such as Commodores, The O’Jays, Bohannon and The Isley Brothers, and truly held their own.

Central Heating was the last great Heatwave album, but they had made their mark. Temperton was soon to leave the band for a stellar career as, to all intents and purposes, Quincy Jones’ in-house writer.

In 1979 lead vocalist Johnnie Wilder was paralysed in a car crash, and after could only attend studio sessions in a production capacity. But Central Heating remains a great, unified album from an often-overlooked band.