Music reviews: Alicia Keys, Crystal Castles, Jason Isbell and The 400 Unit

Alicia Keys

Alicia Keys "Girl On Fire"

“Girl On Fire,” the fifth studio album from Alicia Keys, hits like a semi-truck filled with pillows. It’s powerful yet delicate. Fiery yet sweet. Keys aims to empower listeners with a collection of uplifting tracks. Just look at the song titles “Brand New Me,” “Listen To Your Heart” and Limitedless” and you know what you’re in for. As in the past, Keys is at her best when she sticks to piano-heavy tunes with robust vocals. She really hits her stride on “Tears Always Win” as she pines for a lover to come back. The title track is almost on that level too as its vocals are the most powerful of those found on this release. “Girl On Fire” was an appropriate title for the song and album. If there is any complaint that could be made about the song it’s the “inferno version” that was included on the album used for this review. That version included a rap verse from Nicki Minaj that only seemed to be used to capitalize on Minaj’s current popularity. The single version of the song released earlier this year didn’t include the Minaj verse, and was better for it. But it’s only a minor flaw. The major drawbacks of this album come when Keys tries to go outside of her comfort zone. “New Day” is too Beyonce´. “Limitedless” is too Gwen Stefani. It’s a shame Keys strays away from being herself. It makes the message of empowerment seem less believable when it’s delivered in a way that’s not the norm. How can you be empowered if you can’t be yourself?

Crystal Castles "(III)"

Canadian noise rock act Crystal Castles continues its trippy trek through fuzz and blips on “(III).” With the exception of a couple of tracks, their sound continues to be not quite as accessible as it could be. “Insulin” is over-saturated in distortion and uncomfortable drum beats. “Transgender” swerves all over the road as well. What works for Crystal Castles is when some of their layers of noise are stripped away. “Affection” has them sounding more concise and dialed in. “Telepath” relies on pounding bass to drive the song instead of jagged sounds. It’s a step in the right direction, but it’s not enough to save the album. Crystal Castles’ self-titled debut, complete with 8-bit video game sounds and all, remains their best. “(III)” wildly veers off the path.

Jason Isbell and The 400 Unit "Live From Alabama"

Jason Isbell and The 400 Unit return to their home state for a special performance on “Live From Alabama.” The new live album from the former Drive-By Truckers songwriter and guitarist is as American as big trucks and dirty cowboy boots. Isbell and his band maintain an alt-country sound similar to that of DBT. About half of “Live From Alabama” is made up of songs from Isbell’s stint with the Truckers. That includes “Goddamn Lonely Love,” which gets the best live treatment on this album. In all, most of the songs on “Live From Alabama” are given more life when compared with their studio versions. The album closes with a fantastic cover of Neil Young’s “Like A Hurricane.” “Live From Alabama” proves to be one of the best live albums released in 2012.

Out this week: Harold Budd, “Bandits of Stature”; Judy Collins, “Judy Collins Live at The Metropolitan Museum of Art at the Temple of Dendur”; Dexys Midnight Runners, “Dexys Midnight Runners At The Royal Court”; Diamond Version, “EP2”; Freeway, “Diamond in the Ruff”; Glee Cast, “Glee the Music: Season 4, Volume 1 “; Incan Abraham, “Springhouse”; The Iveys, “The Iveys Christmas”; Junkie XL, “Synthesized”; Lone Wolf, “The Lovers”; Ned’s Atomic Dustbin, “Anthology”; Nektar, “A Spoonful of Time”; Outasight, “Nights Like These”; Rage Against the Machine, “Rage Against The Machine – XX (20th Anniversary Edition)”; The Shins, “No Way Down / Fall of ’82 (Swift Sessions)”; Solange, “True”; The Tea Party, “Live From Australia: The Reformation Tour 2012”; Brooke White, “White Christmas”; Wu-Block, “Wu-Block.”

Out Dec. 4: Melanie Amaro, “Truly”; Blur, “Parklive”; The Cellophane Flowers, “Staring At the World”; Gavin DeGraw, “Sweeter Live”; Danny Elfman, “Hitchcock [Film soundtrack]”; El Perro del Mar, “Pale Fire”; Paloma Faith, “Fall to Grace”; Florida Georgia Line, “Here’s to the Good Times”; Hinder, “Welcome to the Freakshow”; Wiz Khalifa, “O.N.I.F.C.”; Ke$ha, “Warrior”; James Levy and The Blood Red Rose, “Pray to Be Free”; Quincy Jones, “The Essential Early Recordings”; The Longwalls, “Kowloon”; Mia Maestro, “Blue Eyed Sailor”; Lisa Matassa, “Somebody’s Baby”; Memory Tapes, “Grace/Confusion”; Merchandise, “Children of Desire”; Positive, “Forever My King”; Eros Ramazzotti, “Noi”; Snuff, “5-4-3-2-1 ... Perhaps?”; Various artists, “Stand Up Guys [Film soundtrack]”; Scott Walker, “Bish Bosch”; Wayne Wonder, “My Way.”

• Rob Carroll writes about pop culture and entertainment for the Northwest Herald. He can be reached at You can also follow him on Facebook and Twitter.

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