Thursday, November 29, 2012

RECORD REVIEW: Alicia Keys "Girl on Fire"

Alicia Keys
Girl on Fire

Delivering the same authentic
song-based R&B that first made
her a superstar a decade ago,
Alicia Keys returns with start-
to-finish winner — maximum
killers and minimum fillers.

Produced by Keys, and a crew of accomplished colleagues, including, Dr. Dre, Babyface and Swizz Beatz, Girl on Fire is arguably her strongest effort since 2003's The Diary of Alicia Keys. Clearly a team effort, Keys also collaborates on all 13 tunes with several of today's marquee songwriters, such as, Bruno Mars, Frank Ocean and Jeff Bhasker as well as frequent go-to guys, Andrew "Pop" Wansel, Warren "Oak" Felder and Amber "Sevyn" Streeter — even classic arena rock legend Billy Squier makes a contribution.

The opening piano instrumental, "De Novo Adagio," makes for a mighty intro to the delicate, yet soaring "Brand New Me" — a supremely well-crafted song that is by far one of the record's best and most powerful tracks.

"When It's All Over" initially presents a sort of schizo jazz vibe that morphs successfully and seamlessly into a smooth-tasting "More, More, More" flavor — another record highlight to be sure.

Keys' music always has been at its magical and organically soulful best when she simply (and fully) embraces her classic-style R&B anointing and focuses less on trying to appeal to the "now" crowd. Hence, the honest and pure, "less is more" approach on such gems as "Listen to Your Heart," "New Day" and "Not Even the King" makes for songs that are delectable, ambient delights. 

But despite the five credited songwriters and being the record's much-touted lead single, it's the title track that actually falls short. Simply put, Alicia Keys is a superb talent of the highest order and this one is just weak when compared to the other 12 tracks. And while I realize that Nicki Minaj has sold millions of recordings, so did Richard Pryor — but that didn't make him a musician. I also recognize that Minaj is wildly popular among young people who  enjoy watching videos of wacky clowns cursing on YouTube. However, her contribution to "Girl on Fire" is a distraction for music fans and compromises Keys' top-notch artistry.

The passion-filled "Fire We Make" is another of the record's crowning jewels. This Rhodes-driven duet with Maxwell oozes the steamy soulfulness reminiscent of old school R&B records from the likes of Shalamar, Teena Marie and Rose Royce — but with a little extra stank factor on the back end. And the closing Ace Frehley-style guitar work by Gary Clark Jr. is absolutely blistering.

The six and a half minute epic, "101" would, could and should have been a perfect closer, as it is an incredibly powerful solo piano / vocal piece.

"I might as well stand
in front of a bullet.
Close my eyes and kick
the chair to the floor.
It's like a speeding
train is coming.
I know you've crashed it
a hundred times before."
-Alicia Keys

But just as Keys is about to close the deal and take us away to that magical, hypnotic place where all great music is supposed to take us, "101" segues at the five-minute mark into a brash-sounding finale so jarring, it only can be described as a bona fide buzz kill. So much for a "happy ending!"

While Girl on Fire does have a rough spot or two, it is over all, a tremendous record — one of Keys' strongest works to date and without a doubt, one of the best pop / R&B releases of 2012. A+

-Christopher Long
(November 2012)



C'MON! -

Saturday, November 24, 2012

RECORD REVIEW: Rod Stewart - "Merry Christmas, Baby"

Rod Stewart
Merry Christmas, Baby
(The Verve Music Group)

Just when I thought I couldn't
stomach another mundane pop
Christmas record, Rod Stewart
steps up and delivers a true gem
a holiday treat so festive and
fun you almost can smell the
chestnuts roastin' on that open
fire. In fact, there hardly is a
lame track in the bunch. And
I can guarantee it will warm
the cockles of your cockles.

Under the direction of renown producer David Foster, Merry Christmas, Baby offers much of the same smoky, jazz-flavored lounge vibe that has re-ignited Rod Stewart's career in the 2000s. And there is no shortage of highlights.

Combining a lush string arrangement and a single piano with Stewart's signature raspy vocal, "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas"  is a powerful opener and one of the best versions I've ever heard of this timeless treasure — serving as one of the brightest moments of the 13-song set.

"Santa Claus is Coming to Town" is slinky and playful. The group sing-along is a nice fit — adding an extra fun touch.

Stewart's take on "White Christmas" breathes a certain fresh factor into the holiday classic as well as "Winter Wonderland" — a spirited duet with Michael BublĂ©. And while his remake of "When You Wish Upon a Star" is a sweet treat, I personally still prefer Gene Simmons' 1978 version — just sayin'.

"Merry Christmas, Baby" is a funky, soulful duet with Cee-Lo Green — guaranteed to put some extra glide in your holiday stride.

Then there's "Blue Christmas" — one of the all-time worst Christmas songs. It was a freaking downer when Elvis recorded it in 1957 and not even Stewart's well-intended, well-produced, blues-based, slide guitar effort can save it. Pass the cranberry sauce and the revolver, please.

However, "We Three Kings," the duet with R&B diva Mary J. Blige makes for an incredible highlight. Ah, "worshiping God most high." This gospel-flavored number is an inspirational delight. 

And "What Are You Doing New Year's Eve?" with trumpet virtuoso Chris Botti and the late songstress Ella Fitzgerald is simply brilliant.

"Silent Night" is beautiful. The kids' choir brings the song to life and it's SO refreshing to actually hear the name of Christ in a Christmas song — especially coming from the heart of a rock icon such as Rod Stewart. This is my new all-time favorite version.

But the really good news is, Rod Stewart (finally) has a new rock / pop record slated for release next spring — his first in many years. And Merry Christmas, Baby includes a free download coupon for one of his new tracks. Perhaps Stewart now is ready to move on from his sleepy, yet lucrative "songbook" phase and get back to the business of rocking. Rod the mod indeed!

-Christopher Long
(November 2012)



C'MON! -

Monday, November 19, 2012

RECORD REVIEW: THIS IS LOVE (A Worship Collective)

This Is Love 
A Worship Collective

I've been reviewing indie
rock records for many years.
Along the way, I've received
some real crap. Occasionally,
however, I receive records
containing such great songs
that are so well-produced,
they truly warrant exposure.

Yes, Florida's scene is alive and well — but its most powerful music is  not playing out on the stages of smoke-filled beer joints...

Produced by Chris Johnson and Keith Alderman, This Is Love was captured live in concert during a five-night run last summer at East Coast Christian Center in Merritt Island, Florida.

Featuring performances from 27 supremely talented singers and musicians from ECCC, this colossal two-disc set delivers nearly two hours of original tunes mixed with well-known Praise and Worship favorites.

This Is Love producer, Chris Johnson

"Most of these songs center
around the theme of God's
indescribable love."
-Chris Johnson

This Is Love opens with the record's high-energy title track — an original tune written by Johnson, along with  Amanda Walker and Jonathan Walling — it also serves as one of the record's mightiest nuggets. "Dance" and the rousing remake of the Jesus Culture gem, "Father of Lights" complete a monstrous kick-off hat trick.

The revised arrangement of the Horatio Spafford hymn,  "It Is Well," features a full choir and Lou Rawls-like solo from Femi Howard — making for a truly magnificent, "WOW" moment.

Singer / songwriter, Amanda Walker
"This album is birthed out of a
deep and lasting adoration to
God. We pray that people are
blessed and refreshed through it."
-Jonathan Walling

Other highlights include a medley of the Johnson / Walker / Shattuck-penned, "Oh My Soul" and "Sins are Stones" by Mark McMillan as well as the re-vamped version of Daniel Bashta's "Like a Lion" — the "Sweet Home Alabama" of the Praise and Worship scene.

But for me, THE crown jewel of this 17-song collection is without question, "Be Still." Written by Chris and Leigh Ann Johnson, "Be Still" shines brightly through its delicate, less-is-more presentation. The magical union of Johnson's lead vocal with Walker's back-up harmony is absolutely chilling. And Bill Munsey's ambient cello work makes for perfect garnish, juxtaposed with  Johnson's piano work.

This Is Love production team.
This is real love — not that
we loved God, but that he
loved us and sent his Son as a
sacrifice to take away our sins.
1 John 4:10 (NLT)

The record ends  with "So Holy," also written by Johnson. Starting and finishing  as a solemn guitar / vocal ballad, the song takes us on an eight-minute journey filled with soaring guitar work and a power-vocal avalanche from Johnson and Walker. Now, this one truly is destined to become a Praise and Worship classic.

The talented musicians involved in this project are just too numerous to mention here. However, major props must be extended to Keith Alderman. Also known for his past involvement with the popular national touring group, Classic Albums Live, Keith engineered and mastered  the record. He  also provided keyboard work and created various beat and loop programs.

Musician and record engineer, Keith Alderman
This Is Love will be released officially on November 24th. It will be available in the traditional CD format for $12 as well as through iTunes for $9.99. To order a hard copy, contact the East Coast Christian Center office @ (321) 452-1060 or click on the This Is Love icon on the homepage.

-Christopher Long
(November 2012)



C'MON! -

Friday, November 16, 2012



In short, Argo is a suspense-
filled, slam dunk winner based
on the rescue mission of six
American diplomats during the
1979-1981 Iran Hostage Crisis.

Directed by and starring Ben Affleck as former CIA operative Tony Mendez, the film is factual enough to offer a credible account of the historic event, yet embellishes just enough to make for a start-to-finish thriller — one that is generating considerable Oscar buzz.

Affleck as CIA agent Mendez crossing Iranian border.

On November 4, 1979, the American Embassy in Tehran was seized by a group of militants. 52 Americans were taken hostage and would be held captive for 444 days. However, six American diplomats escaped  — taking refuge at the  home of the Canadian ambassador.

CIA specialist Mendez is brought in to propose a rescue mission. His "best bad plan" is the production of a (fake) sci-fi film entitled, Argo. In cooperation with the Canadian government and selected Hollywood insiders, Mendez' covert operation begins to play out as a bogus L.A. production office is set up, phony press conferences are staged and huge ads begin appearing in the trades — all promoting the non-existent film. Upon establishing Argo's credibility, Mendez swoops into Iran (forged passports in hand) under the premise of scouting exotic sites for the movie. The ultimate plan is to sneak the six diplomats out of Iran and back to the U.S. as part of the Argo production team. Simple, right?

Goodman, Arkin and Affleck in Argo.

Much attention was paid to detail in re-creating the '70s look and vibe for Argo. Era-specific wardrobe, video clips and soundtrack made for an authentic production — although The Rolling Stones' "Little T&A" was not released until months after the rescue mission.

In addition to Affleck's Oscar-worthy portrayal of Mendez, Alan Arkin as Argo director Lester Siegel, John Goodman as legendary Hollywood make-up artist John Chambers and Bryan Cranston  as  CIA supervisor Jack O'Donnell all deliver rock-star caliber performances.

In sum, believe the hype. Argo is a riveting, two-hour must-see. In a year that delivered such content as Rock of Ages, Ted, and  The Watch, Argo is without question, one of 2012's best films.

-Christopher Long
(November 2012)



C'MON! -