ALICIA KEYS – Keys (RCA).
Verdict Shows her versatility
PAUL WELLER: A Orchestrated Songbook (Polydor).
Verdict: Classics paired with strings
NEIL YOUNG & CRAZY HORSE: Barn (Reprise)
Verdict: This is for you diehards
This year has been a big one for pop anniversaries, with Joni Mitchell’s Blue, Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On and the fourth Led Zeppelin LP all turning 50, and The Rolling Stones’ Tattoo You given a 40th birthday reissue.
It’s been 25 years, too, since Oasis’s (What’s The Story) Morning Glory? The first Spice Girls album.
One milestone has slipped slightly under the radar, though: 2021 also marked the 20th anniversary of Alicia Keys’s debut, Songs In A Minor.
Originally released in June 2001 (and reissued this summer), the album’s blend of traditional soul and Chopin-inspired virtuosity won five Grammys and set the New Yorker on the road to stardom.
Alicia Keys (above) has since sold 65 million records and she reiterates her versatility on a new double album that showcases her talent in full
Keys’s sales have surpassed 65 million copies. She also demonstrates her versatility with a double album which showcases all her skills. The record is divided into two parts — Originals and Unlocked.
Keys is a singer-songwriter who can sing with soulful vocals and piano. The first album features Keys singing all the songs. Her inner showgirl is celebrated in the second version, which features different renditions many of the same songs.
Originals features a lot of throwbacks and vintage soul music. Skydive, a ballad that features piano and drums, is punctuated with piano and drums.
Another slow song, Best Of Me, samples the moody atmospherics of Sade’s 1992 single Cherish The Day and contains a clever nod to 1999 sci-fi film The Matrix. Old Memories has a doo-wop-like mid-tempo melody.
This is the highlight of Is It Insane. A six-minute discussion about the pain and unrequited passion that Amy Winehouse would be proud of, it’s the high point.
With Alicia’s jazzy piano accompanied by brushed drums and upright bass, she dares to dream of wedding bells, only to brace herself for the inevitable romantic disappointment: ‘She can have you now, I just want to fade away.’
The album Unlocked captures the more passionate musician. Reworked by R&B producer Mike Will, it takes the songs from part one and fires them up with a more robust rhythmic backing to add a contemporary edge: Skydive is funkier; Best Of Me is enhanced with electronic bleeps; Is It Insane feels much more urgent.
The high point of Alicia’s (pictured) album arrives with Is It Insane, a six-minute discourse on the pain of unrequited love that would have been worthy of the late Amy Winehouse
With a changed running order — and two R&B numbers not on Originals — this second part sometimes feels like a different artist, a contrast in styles reaffirmed by the fact that the beautiful piano ballad Paper Flowers is one of four Originals tracks not given a makeover on Unlocked.
Keys isn’t the first artist to ‘re-imagine’ an album. Taylor Swift has recorded Fearless and Red again in the last year due to a dispute over rights. Paul McCartney and Dua Lipa have also rerecorded the songs. Keys took it one step further, releasing both an enhanced and original version of the album simultaneously.
Although I prefer the Unlocked version slightly, the more mellow Originals makes for great late-night listening. It’s no wonder Bob Dylan, who penned the song Thunder On The Mountain largely about Keys, is such a fan: there’s something here for everyone.
Paul Weller has a way of changing moods that give his music an energy few can match.
As a teenager obsessed with Who and Beatles, he soon became a hipster soul boy in The Jam’s Style Council. He then launched a solo career which continues to amaze.
Paul Weller’s music has a life that few others can match, thanks to his (above) constant mood changes.
He’s on the move again with An Orchestrated Songbook — his first album of symphonic arrangements.
Recorded last May at London’s Barbican, with conductor Jules Buckley and the BBC Symphony Orchestra, it adds sumptuous strings and horns to tracks spanning his entire catalogue.
It’s all done with finesse: Buckley’s deft orchestrations frame the songs superbly without blanketing them in bombast.
Leah, his daughter and Modfather, became grandfathers in September. Weller wisely avoids the antics of his fiery youth.
There’s no space for In The City or Town Called Malice, but he does reinterpret two mellower Jam tracks, casting English Rose in a fresh light and turning Carnation into a cinematic piece with a Disney-like harp finale.
Neil Young (above) stays on familiar ground on a new album with Crazy Horse — his backing band on After The Gold Rush and Tonight’s The Night
The Style Council get a look-in with My Ever Changing Moods and a version of You’re The Best Thing that retains the original’s soulful essence.
Boy George duets on the latter, and there are further cameos from Celeste, on Wild Wood; and James Morrison, whose raspy tone is the perfect foil for Weller’s softer timbre, on Broken Stones.
The singer, 63, has hit a rich vein of writing form and his three most recent albums — True Meanings, On Sunset and Fat Pop (Volume 1) — are well represented. Equanimity is rebooted with a brassy, fairground feel, and On Sunset’s title track, a six-minute soul symphony, lends itself beautifully to the orchestral treatment.
Reunited with Crazy Horse — his backing band on After The Gold Rush and Tonight’s The Night — Neil Young stays on familiar ground on a new album of gnarly rockers and sweet ballads recorded in the Colorado Rockies and titled after the restored 19th-century barn in which it was made.
The highly-anticipated album ends with a touching romantic ballad in Don’t Forget Love
The legacy of lockdown is his inspiration on Song Of The Seasons, as he looks through his window at ‘masked people walking everywhere, it’s humanity in my sights’, while Shape Of You — not the Ed Sheeran song — is a honky-tonk ode to his actress wife, Daryl Hannah.
He is joined by Nils Lofgren, who plays piano. His vivid memories of Winnipeg are captured on Heading West. However, his tone on Human Race, an eco-rocker, can be heard.
The album ends with a touching romantic ballad in Don’t Forget Love, but Young’s eighth new album in eight years is essentially one for his more ardent fans.
Alicia Keys will begin a tour at Birmingham’s Utilita Arena on June 9, 2022 (aliciakeys.com). Paul Weller’s tour begins at Plymouth Pavilions, March 31, 2022 (paulweller.com).