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RECORD RACK

Young Keys and her good old songs

October 09, 2005|Robert Hilburn

Alicia Keys

"Alicia Keys Unplugged" (J)

* * *

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 is someone who understands the soulful heart of R&B and pop and that she is at the creative intersection between the music's past and future.

Albums are rated on a scale of one star (poor), two stars (fair), three stars (good) and four stars (excellent). The albums are already released unless otherwise noted.

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