Cd Check

CD CHECK

October 20, 2005|By LOS ANGELES TIMES

Alicia Keys

Alicia Keys Unplugged

[J] *** (3 stars)

Alicia Keys' latest album comes with several surprises, most of them welcome.

For starters, she doesn't cling to the intimate, stripped-down approach so often employed on Unplugged editions. The New Yorker revisits central songs from her first two albums in smart, aggressive arrangements that blow away suspicions that all the life has been squeezed from such radio and concert favorites as "Fallin'," "Heartburn" and "You Don't Know My Name."

Keys and her large supporting cast bring such personality and fire to the disc's highlights that Unplugged often mirrors the vitality and discovery of some of the great live R&B and soul collections of the '60s and '70s.

The problems in this 72-minute package come chiefly when the exquisite singer-songwriter moves to what you'd think would be the creative heart of the album: material that isn't on her earlier CDs.

A new Keys ballad, "Stolen Moments," is too plain, and the nearly eight-minute "Streets of New York" is heavy on ambition and avant-garde experimentation but light on impact and focus.

Keys is far more appealing on "Unbreakable," a playful new tune co-written by Kanye West, a stylish remake of the old Motown ballad "Every Little Bit Hurts" and a vigorous rendition of Damian Marley's recent hit "Welcome to Jamrock" that features appearances by Marley, Mos Def and Common.

In those moments, Keys shows again that she understands the soulful heart of R&B and pop and that she is at the creative intersection between the music's past and future.

Devendra Banhart

Cripple Crow

[XL Recordings] *** (3 stars)

"Little white monkey starin' at the sand/Well, maybe that monkey figured out something I couldn't understand."

When Devendra Banhart sang that couplet on his last album, 2004's Nino Rojo, he might have been describing his own puzzling appeal. With his idiosyncratic, witchy-woods folk music, the starry-eyed vagabond has conjured an enchanted realm that mystifies many but speaks strongly to a cozy little cult.

Banhart's fourth album is his most accessible, reining in his more mannered vocal tics and expanding the musical palette. If he's this generation's Donovan, Cripple Crow is his Sunshine Superman, its rustic folk supplemented by light rock and funk grooves and some tamboura-and-tabla and Jefferson Airplane-like psychedelia.

Of course, accessibility is relative. Banhart's pleas for peace and harmony have a guileless charm, and in "When They Come" they assume an epic urgency. But his whimsy is often slight and indulgent, and four of the songs here are in Spanish.

If he's going to sing in a foreign tongue, it might as well be one of his own.

Disturbed

Ten Thousand Fists

[Reprise] ** 1/2 (2 1/2 stars)

With its 2000 debut, The Sickness, and the equally potent follow-up, Believe, a couple of years later, Disturbed was one of the most distinctive acts to emerge from the "nu-metal" blitzkrieg that kicked off the millennium.

Though the Chicago group served up the usual torrential riffs and rants, its rhythmic pacing put it closer to rap-metalists such as Linkin Park than the chaotic thrashers with which it was often lumped.

And like Linkin Park, Disturbed is one of the few aggressive bands still standing. Its third album, which debuted at No. 1 on the national sales chart, sees the group not only still standing but also attempting to stomp even harder than before.

Still, the stammering tempos and impassioned vocals of singer David Draiman start to bleed into each other midway through this too-long, 14-track release.

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