Alicia Keys, Common, Jim James and More Music Reviews

Plus, get reviews of the latest from Common, Jim James and more.

ByABC News
November 10, 2016, 4:24 AM

— -- intro: This week Alicia Keys returns with her sixth studio album, Common releases an engrossing new collection, My Morning Jacket’s Jim James releases a new solo album, Hope Sandoval of Mazzy Star returns with her band The Warm Inventions and Scottish rockers Honeyblood don’t disappoint on their sophomore effort. I know your focus has probably been on the election this week, but some great new tunes saw a release as well.

quicklist: 1title: Alicia Keys’ “Here” ****text: If you are looking for the pop side of Alicia Keys, you will be disappointed by her sixth studio album, “Here.” This is her earthiest, most organic sounding record to date with roots in jazz, blues, folk and hip-hop. Surprisingly, this year’s considerably glossier pop hit, “In Common” is nowhere to be found in this set’s track list and so it remains a standalone single.

There are parts of this album that are bigger on mood than hooks. In that regard, perhaps adding “In Common” to the mix might have helped this album for those with looking for something more immediate. The awesome build of the jazzy “Illusion Of Bliss” probably won’t get her radio play, but that isn’t what Keys is after. On the flipside, you at least have the extremely immediate appeal of “Blended Family (What You Do For Love)” and the Nas-referencing, “She Don’t Really Care_1 Luv.”

Think back to 2001 and you’ll probably remember that it was at first her “neo-soul” qualities that initially earned her attention. “Fallin’” fit well as a more mainstreamed cousin of the work being done by Jill Scott and Erykah Badu at the time. That continued on her second set, “The Diary Of Alicia Keys,” two years later, particularly on the Kanye West-helmed soulful ode, “You Don’t Know My Name.” Starting with “As I Am,” and going into “The Element Of Freedom” and “Girl On Fire,” Keys began to lose the edge that made her unique. All those records are decent, but they don’t quite hit with the same intensity of her first two offerings.

To some degree, “Here” brings this more natural edge back. In places, it sounds like Keys is aiming for a Nina Simone vibe and the acoustic guitar-driven “Kill Your Mama” brings forth associations with some of Lauryn Hill’s more stripped-down work.

The reception this album is going to get is likely to be mixed, but essentially this is Keys reclaiming her “neo-soul” side and adding a more natural crunch without compromising her hip-hop sense of cool. This is her most important record in more than a decade and likely a huge, positive turning-point in her career.

Focus Tracks:

“Blended Family (What You Do For Love)” (Featuring A$AP Rocky) This song is not only a beautiful ode to family but it built around the classic riff from Edie Brickell and the New Bohemians’ hit, “What I Am.” Not only does this bring positive associations with Brickell, but also hip-hop historians will remember that this song was also sampled for the Brand Nubian classic, “Slow Down.” This riff was probably plucked not only because it fit beautifully but because Keys obviously takes a bit of influence from both artists.

“Girl Can’t Be Herself” If I read one more article about how Keys isn’t wearing makeup, I am going to scream. It has become a big thing and the fact that it has become such a big deal speaks volumes about our corrupted beauty standards. It has nothing to do with her music! What should matter is that she is comfortable with herself and allowed to look the way she wants to without bowing to societal expectations. This song is essentially Keys’ thesis statement about her choice to no longer wear makeup and how the beauty industry plays on insecurity.

“Where Do We Begin Now” This is from the perspective of someone realizing romantic feelings for someone of the same sex. Wondering how to deal with it and how to label it, in this brief track, Keys has encapsulated what many people who are realizing they might be gay or bisexual may be feeling. Structurally speaking, this is a beautiful song which takes an ornate piano line and pairs it with a pounding hip-hop beat and some sampled yells while Keys sings in a whispered and intimate fashion.

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quicklist: 2title: Common’s “Black America Again” ****1/2text: Common has been rapidly evolving into a wise voice of reason, able to navigate the troubled waters of modern society with wit and sincerity. Like his last album, “Nobody’s Smiling,” in 2014, this album is a highly potent examination of modern society, injustice and inequality. Again, Common is obviously aiming to be this generation’s answer to Gil Scott-Heron or “What’s Going On,” era Marvin Gaye. I’ve said this in reviews before and it continues to be true and this album is a touching, moving masterpiece of a record that summons Common’s beat-poetry wisdom and fuses it was a sense of political fervor.

This isn’t an angry record. The vibe here is one of frustration but nervous optimism. It is called “Black America Again” as a sense of renewal, imagining what a new generation will bring to the table. Within the context of the controversial, heavily charged presidential election, this will be a record we can point to as a barometer in the future for how tense it was in 2016.

Dusty beats on songs like “Home” and “Pyramids” perfectly provide the determined quality of this set. After all, throughout the set Common is discussing his anguish with a society that incarcerates so many and one where the playing field is obviously not equal. Again, this is another album that lies in the direct shadow of the Black Lives Matter movement.

Common also adds personal touches with the autobiographical, “Little Chicago Boy,” which also tells the story of his father. He shouts out to strong women in the matriarchal utopian exploration, “The Day Women Took Over” and takes direct aim at Donald Trump and his slogan “Make America Great Again” on “Letter To Be Free,” a song in which he also declares, “The new Jim Crow is stop, search and arrest our souls.”

This record is also filled with high profile guests. Stevie Wonder sings on the title track while Bilal, Marsha Ambrosius, PJ, BJ The Chicago Kid, Syd & Elena, Tasha Cobbs and John Legend all make some strong appearances. All throughout various points of the record, you can hear Robert Glasper’s tremendous piano work.

This is an intelligent, necessary record. If you are someone who looks at modern hip-hop and doesn’t see it as an agent of social change, this album should be a wake-up call. “Black America Again” is easily one of Common’s strongest and most indelible records to date.

Focus Tracks:

“Black America Again”(Featuring Stevie Wonder) The 21-minute Ava DuVernay-produced music video to go along this track is a mostly black-and-white artistic triumph which makes memorable use out of both spaces of silence and images of stark, human beauty. Common makes references Trayvon Martin, violence on the street and “the new plantation / Mass incarceration” in a moving piece that has a great deal of heart. This track finds Common reaching an artistic apex. This is poetry crying out in the face of injustice.

“Pyramids” With a rapid-fire flow, Common goes from schooling a 19-year-old in a hip-hop battle to going back into history and discussing an array of topics. This is all done over an intriguing synth-line and a driving beat. The track also incorporates some well-placed samples ODB’s “Brooklyn Zoo,”, thus cementing a vintage “classic hip-hop” vibe.

“Letter To The Free” (Featuring Bilal) This closing track is also featured in Ava DuVernay’s documentary, “The 13th” about the prison system in America. Common weaves images of slavery and lynching and puts them in a modern context as if he’s writing a letter to his ancestors. He’s essentially telling them that we still have a very long way to go as a society before everyone is truly free.

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quicklist: 3title: Jim James’ “Eternally Even” ***text: In addition to being the frontman to My Morning Jacket, Jim James has been building his name as a producer, helming two of the best records of 2016 with Ray LaMontagne’s “Ouroboros” and Basia Bulat’s “Good Advice.” “Eternally Even” is his third solo offering and like the LaMontagne record, this set is on the psychedelic side. Of course, while “Ouroboros” is a bit of a “psych-rock” masterpiece, James bathes passages of his own record with coats of sonic murk. The politically minded “Same Old Lie” is thick with fuzz, perhaps mirroring the modern climate.

This album does have clearer moments as well. On “Here In Spirit” and “The World’s Smiling Now,” he’s almost playing clean, still ethereal-sounding R&B, while the two-part “We Ain’t Getting Any Younger” section of the record at points brings to mind some of Stereolab’s experiments.

“Eternally Even” is a peculiar if not occasionally bizarre record, but that is not to say it is an unsuccessful one. James obviously isn’t aiming to set the world on fire here and to become the biggest name in the world. He just wants to make a vaguely trippy record that recalls the more experimental work of the seventies. Again, the approach here is similar to his approach on LaMontagne’s record, only while this album goes a long way by exploring moods, LaMontagne had a stronger batch of songs.

Still it is the bizarre turns that this album takes that might make you come back for more. With its horn section and its slamming beat, “True Nature” sounds like it should have some sort of guest hip-hop break, but again, it is covered in a dense layer of fuzz.

Other than a few of the political statements, this record does not feel current. It feels at least 40 years old. If “prog-rock,” “acid rock,” jazz and disco-style funk could all align, it might sound like “Eternally Even.” This is a woozy, occasionally difficult record, but nevertheless a worthy experiment.

Focus Tracks:

“Here In Spirit” If James had released a whole album's worth of songs with this level of sonic clarity and focus, this would be a very different review. James’ chorus of “If you don’t speak out / We won’t hear it,” resonates especially in the week of a national presidential election.

“True Nature” This track brings the funk in a very unexpected way. You’ll probably find yourself focusing on the drums especially as the places in the front of the mix become increasingly chaotic.

“The World’s Smiling Now” This again is a cleaner-sounding track that plays like a mournfully reflective R&B ballad.

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quicklist: 4title: Hope Sandoval & The Warm Inventions’ “Until The Hunter” ***1/2text: “Until The Hunter” is the third offering from The Warm Inventions, Hope Sandoval’s band with My Bloody Valentine’s Colm Ó Cíosóig. It is also probably the strongest of those three albums. Admittedly if you liked the ethereal haze of psychedelia and gothic desert-country found on Sandoval’s work with Mazzy Star, this doesn’t stretch that far out of the same comfort zone.

When we last heard Sandoval, she was reconvened with her partner in Mazzy Star, David Roback for 2013’s reunion record, “Seasons Of Your Day.” If this new Warm Inventions offering (their first in seven years) makes anything clear, it is that no one else sings a song like Sandoval and she is someone who shouldn’t be away for long stretches.

Like most of Sandoval’s other sets, this is a trippy, occasionally downright ambient offering. The nine-minute opener “Into The Trees” lies somewhere between a dream-like score and a chilled meditation, while “The Peasant” has a slow, country swoon.

There are also bits of striking light on this record. Kurt Vile shows up on the R&B duet “Let Me Get There,” a song that possesses the kind of sly funkiness that seems like vaguely new territory for Sandoval.

In fact, as the album progresses, it seems to get more upbeat. This is a rather backloaded set when you consider that two of its most magnetic tracks, “Isn’t It True” and the syncopated, quickly-strummed rocker, “I Took A Slip” are towards the end of the record.

In the end, “Until The Hunter” is a reliable, admittedly fascinating record that continues in Sandoval’s iconic tradition. It finds her showing a refreshing bit of looseness. Fans of Sandoval’s Mazzy Star output will surely appreciate this set a great deal.

Focus Tracks:

“Let Me Get There” (Featuring Kurt Vile) This sounds like Sandoval and Vile have been listening to Alabama Shakes on repeat and yet neither singer sounds out of place.

“Isn’t It True” This track has the making of a left-field hit. It won’t have anywhere near the success of “Fade Into You” but it vaguely sounds like an alternate-dimension, acoustic response to Belly’s classic “Sad Dress.”

“I Took A Slip” This is quite a rapid-fire strummer by Sandoval’s standards which makes it a bit of a surprise.

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quicklist: 5title: Honeyblood’s “Babes Never Die” ****text: Honeyblood is an indie rock duo out of Scotland. “Babes Never Die” is their second album. Led by vocalist and guitarist, Stina Tweeddale, this is actually the first record with new drummer Cat Myers who replaces original drummer Shona McVicar.

Right from the beginning, the album launches into an appealing space, bouncing from the stormy intro that then blossoms into the title-track. “Ready For The Magic” is the kind of frantic, powerful rocker that brings to mind the pop-minded wing of the “RIOT GRRRL!” movement. “Love Is A Disease” makes the most of a fuzzy synth-bass-line, while “Walking At Midnight” balances a strong drive with an underlying pensive energy.

Honeyblood really have many successes on this record. Tweeddale can really craft some catchy hooks, but the two women hit their best moments when they combine winding melodies with hard-edged fuzz-assaults. “Justine, Misery Queen” somehow owes just as much to the paisley harmonies of the '60s as it does '90s grunge, while “Sister Wolf” has some potent determination that is further enforced by the dense and engrossing guitar work.

“Babes Never Die” is the kind of record that gains more resonance with repeated listens, thus making Honeyblood an act that should definitely be on your radar.

Focus Tracks:

“Ready For The Magic” This rocking anthem is the best song on the record and provides a powerful listen, especially when it is pumped at top volume on a decent pair of headphones. In a different time, this would have lit the alternative-rock radio charts on fire.

“Justine, Misery Queen” If they decided to make a collection of current “Nuggets”-style garage-rock, this track would really fit the bill.

“Love Is A Disease” There are so many appealing textures here and this song’s melody makes a number of impressive shifts without losing focus or vitality.

Next Week: New music from A Tribe Called Quest, Sting and more.

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