ALICIA KEYS: ELEMENT OF FREEDOM
Introduced to the pop marketplace early in the last decade with all the strategic subtlety of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, Alicia Keys seemed to be grasping for reasons to justify mentor Clive Davis' hype on her first two albums, "Songs in a Minor" (2001) and "The Diary of Alicia Keys" (2003). With her last disc, she stopped trying so hard and simply turned herself over to the pop machine. As a result, though it was still extremely silly at times, "As I Am" (2007) stands as her most pleasurable statement.
Alas, the fourth time around, Keys is vying to be heavier than ever. She throws down the gauntlet and defines "The Element of Freedom" in a ponderous introduction: "And the day came/When the risk it took/To remain tightly closed in a bud/Was more painful than the risk it took to bloom." So what does this flowering bouquet give us? Nothing but empty cliches, same as in the past. (Sample lyric: "Through the shake of an earthquake, I will never fall/That's how strong my love is.")
You might contend that no one expects wit and wisdom from Keys. Fair enough, but fans have come to appreciate the sultry slow-burn of her mix of old-school R&B, polished neo-soul and the slightest hint of hip-hop edge. But those sounds are blunted to the point of boredom here by the plodding rhythms and odd flourishes of hollow stadium-rock bombast: It's not hard to imagine Bon Jovi putting its stamp on many of these tunes, but at least their guitar solos would prompt concertgoers to wave their lighters in the air.
In the end, the strongest moment is "Empire State of Mind Part 2," a chilled-out encore of "Empire State of Mind," her duet with Jay-Z on "The Blueprint 3." And as strong as this tune is, it sounded better the first time around.
VAMPIRE WEEKEND: CONTRA
While the sheer exuberance of the African rhythms so cheerfully appropriated by New York's preppy wonders Vampire Weekend eventually prompted me to warm to them a bit as a live act--the sunny sounds were hard to resist at the Pitchfork Music Festival in 2008, thanks to irrepressible drummer Chris Tomson--more than any distracting questions about authenticity (are privileged Columbia University grads less entitled to rip off Afro-pop sounds than Paul Simon was?), the superficialities of their concerns (polo shirts, yachting, butlers and the rest) continue to make their self-titled debut annoying to the point of being unlistenable.
Despite the heavy title of the quartet's second album--allegedly chosen to evoke "Sandinista" by the Clash, though the historical reference is to Nicaragua's right-wing death squads--the rhythms seem stale, predictable and at times ennervating (slowing to a crawl on "Diplomat's Son," a misguided dalliance with dub reggae); the hooks are much skimpier and less memorable, and bandleader and primary songwriter Ezra Koenig has even less insight to offer while bragging of his groovy globetrotting: His idea of insight into our polyglot culture is to brag of drinking horchata, a milky Mexican concoction made from rice, while wearing a balaclava, a Ukrainian ski mask.
Who can't relate to that? This reviewer, for one: To these ears, Vampire Weekend has made an even more airy, trifling and unfulfilling disc than its predecessor. And because it's the second time around, there are even fewer reasons to care.