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Alicia Keys
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The Element Of Freedom

(J ***)

nolead ends Alicia Keys' niche as the classy, piano-playing R&B alternative choice, the good girl who hasn't gone bad, is intact on The Element Of Freedom. Keys' fourth album is rarely thrilling but consistently satisfying. It tends toward the pleading, mid-tempo tracks Keys is most comfortable with, such as the aching "Try Sleeping With a Broken Heart," the cliché-ridden "Like The Sea" and the ivory-tickling "That's How Strong My Love Is." (The last not being the great old O.V. Wright hit, unfortunately.) Occasionally, Keys throws in a wrinkle, such as the reggae pulse that drives the highlight "Love Is My Disease" and the sure-to-be-a-smash duet with Beyoncé, "Put It in a Love Song," which plays like a more decorous, less demanding "Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)." And there's also a version of de-hip-hop-ified "Empire State of Mind," her Blueprint 3 hit with Jay-Z, that excises the rapper from the equation. Solid, if never surprising.

- Dan DeLuca

nolead begins Chris Brown
nolead ends nolead begins Graffiti
nolead ends nolead begins (Jive/Zomba/Sony Music *1/2)

nolead ends Fans seldom expect more than a good hook and a pretty face from their teen pop stars - but they don't expect brutal beatings, either. That's why Graffiti - Chris Brown's third album, and his first since assaulting then-girlfriend Rihanna in February - merits special scrutiny. Especially coming just two weeks after Rihanna's Rated R, a surprisingly deep album of minor-key revenge and power-chord catharsis. Graffiti deals candidly with Brown's regrets in "So Cold" and "I'll Go," two piano-ballad highlights built on melodic introspection and thoughtful chord progressions. But then sincerity fades: The rest of the CD skirts the topic entirely, instead favoring crass club come-ons and heinously inappropriate, womanizing braggadocio. At the end of the day, it's clear that while Rihanna has grown as a person and an artist, Chris Brown only halfway bothers trying to fake it.

- Jakob Dorof

nolead begins OneRepublic
nolead ends nolead begins Waking Up
nolead ends nolead begins (Interscope **1/2)

nolead ends Despite a monster hit with "Apologize" in 2007, the Colorado quintet named OneRepublic has gotten somewhat lost in the shuffle as its front man, Ryan Tedder, has become increasingly renowned as a solo songwriter for Leona Lewis, Beyoncé, Jordin Sparks, and others.

Tedder should have saved some better material for his home team's second release. The opening track, "Made for You," is one of Tedder's trademark turbo-ballads, a song that tugs at your heart while kicking your caboose.

But the pickings get pretty thin after that. The more ambitious songs, such as the anthemic "All the Right Moves" and the importunate "Everybody Loves Me," are undeniably catchy, but they also sound pretentious. Not nearly as pretentious, though, as "Missing Persons 1 & 2" and the title track, which seem to be Coldplay knockoffs.

Ah, the curious case of OneRepublic, a band that can flirt with brilliance and blandness - in the same song.

- David Hiltbrand

nolead begins Gucci Mane
nolead ends nolead begins The State vs. Radric Davis
nolead ends nolead begins (Asylum ***)

nolead ends Radric Davis, a.k.a. Gucci Mane - the toast of Atlanta's Dirty South - never lets murder raps or rapper vendettas stop the party ball from rolling. "I don't turn around no more," declares Mane on "Worst Enemy," referring with stoic drawl to his past legal problems and feuds. "I look at what's in front of me / I'm focused on the future / yesterday is history."

That's as ruminative as the Dirty Southerner's ever been. Throughout his career, the bling-loving Mane managed to turn diamonds and pearls into poetry without sounding trite. The slow-motion State is no different; its low-grooving beats and sizzling synth ambience allow Mane and guests such as Lil Wayne, Keyshia Cole, and (too many) more to wax rhapsodic on matters of excess. The smoky soul of his teaming with Usher, "Spotlight," is particularly obsessive while retaining elegant finesse and funk. Still, cuts such as "Worst Enemy" and "The Movie" show Mane thinking long and hard about who he needs to be now that he's outrun his troubles. "Heavy" is the best of these thought-provokers, as Mane blends the usual boasting with disgust at and distrust of egoism. That's progress as golden as any bling.

- A.D. Amorosi

Country/Roots

Hank Williams

Revealed: The Unreleased Recordings

(Time Life ****)

nolead ends This gold mine of a collection picks up where last year's initial Unreleased Recordings set left off. It's three more CDs of 1951 performances by Hank Williams and his band, the Drifting Cowboys, from his morning radio show on Nashville's WSM.

Once again the recordings are remarkably clean and provide a revelatory portrait of the country immortal as he plays his own hits, songs from his Luke the Drifter persona, and numbers he never recorded. It's everything from stark, despairing balladry to uplifting gospel and sentimental parlor songs. You also hear him bantering with the show's announcer, Uncle Louie Buck, adding to the loose, lively vibe.

Unlike last year's collection, each disc on Revealed includes a complete 15-minute show. They consist of two numbers sung by Williams, one of them a spiritual; a brisk instrumental by the band; and ads for the show's sponsor. The time-capsule quality of it is fascinating, but the startling immediacy and bracing timelessness of the music is even more so.

- Nick Cristiano

nolead begins Dave Rawlings Machine
nolead ends nolead begins A Friend of a Friend
nolead ends nolead begins (Acony ***)

nolead ends As musical partner of Gillian Welch, Dave Rawlings has helped shape her spellbinding brand of O Brother, Where Art Thou?-style country-folk. Now, as Rawlings steps up, Welch is on hand to help out. She cowrote five of the nine numbers and contributes vocals and guitar.

A Friend of a Friend also has an old-timey feel - "Ruby," one of two numbers to make sublime use of strings, talks about a "telegraph man," while Jesse Fuller's "Monkey and the Engineer," given a jaunty hillbilly-Dixieland arrangement, is all about "the big locomotive comin' down the line." A draggy, 10-minute track coupling Conor Oberst's "Method Acting" and Neil Young's "Cortez the Killer" seems out of place amid originals such as "Sweet Tooth" and "How's About You." Those tunes help define an album that exudes an unpretentious, down-home warmth and allows Rawlings to stake out his own identity.

- N.C.

Jazz

Kurt Rosenwinkel

Standards Trio: Reflections

(Wommusic ***1/2)

nolead ends Guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel has spent much of the last decade finding his sound within a quartet or a larger conglomeration of hard-chargers. Here, the Philadelphia native, who now lives in Berlin, turns in a more intimate direction with a trio. Working with bassist Eric Revis and drummer Eric Harland, Rosenwinkel lets his cosmic tones loose on standards and works by Thelonious Monk and Wayne Shorter.

The result is a quiet, soft-hued recording. On one level, the session is a perfect complement to an evening before the fireplace. Yet it also repays intense listening, serving as an elegant showpiece for Rosenwinkel's advanced harmonics.

It's virtually a liquid pleasure to hear the trio wordlessly unwind "You Go to My Head," which boasts some memorable lyrics. Rosenwinkel carries some of that heft in his reading of the melody and the sonic accoutrements he lays around it. Monk's "Reflections," the title track, starts with Rosenwinkel picking his way through the head with lightness and verve until it segues into a rich ballad. Shorter's "Ana Maria" is nearly as hard-driving as this session gets.

- Karl Stark

nolead begins Eric Alexander
nolead ends nolead begins Revival of the Fittest
nolead ends nolead begins (HighNote ***1/2)

nolead ends Tenor saxophonist Eric Alexander has long been prolific, both in recordings as a leader and a sideman and in notes played in his solos. Here he gives a good mix of abandon and restraint. Working with the expressive Harold Mabern on piano, Nat Reeves on bass, and Joe Farnsworth on drums, Alexander creates a zesty set of standards and originals. It's hard-hitting but not percussively oppressive. And there's enough variety that it doesn't molder.

Alexander, who has played with legendary Philly guitarist Pat Martino, can make old-head references without seeming out of date. "My Grown-Up Christmas List" is a pretty pop tune, while Ivan Lins' "The Island" holds some bossa nova mystery. Mabern's "Blues for Phineas" offers some beguiling boogie. And Alexander offers a deft and fluid swing through the changes of "You Must Believe in Spring."

- K.S.

Classical

Handel
Messiah

Julia Doyle, Iestyn Davies, Allan Clayton, Andrew Foster-Williams. Polyphony and Britten Sinfonia, Stephen Layton conducting

(Hyperion ***1/2)

nolead ends This is the only new Messiah recording to surface this year - not that more are needed. But anyone who heard conductor Stephen Layton's guest Messiah engagement with the Philadelphia Orchestra a few seasons back knows he's likely to claim a place among the best. His basic viewpoint is historically informed performance, though he doesn't pursue it as radically (or resourcefully) as John Butt's Dunedin Players on Linn.

Still, Layton's orchestra and particularly chorus are absolutely first-class; sopranos are positively mighty in the "Hallelujah Chorus." More than most Messiah recordings, this one of the 1750 edition feels blessedly effortless. No star names are found among the soloists, but there are star voices, all with particularly inventive vocal ornaments. Iestyn Davies' natural, open-hearted countertenor is a joy to hear, and soprano Julia Doyle is a major discovery: Her voice has more body and personality than many of her early-music counterparts but no lack of agility. More on her below.

- David Patrick Stearns

nolead begins Bach
Magnificat
nolead ends nolead begins Julia Doyle, Rosa Lamoreaux, Daniel Taylor, Benjamin Butterfield, and Daniel Lichti. Bach Choir of Bethlehem, Bach Festival Orchestra
nolead ends nolead begins (Analekta ***1/2)

nolead ends nolead begins Maria Keohane, Anna Zander, Carlos Mena, Hans-Jörg Mammel, and Stephan MacLeod. Ricercar Consort, Philippe Pierlot, conducting
nolead ends nolead begins (Mirare ***1/2)

nolead ends Though one of Bach's most popular evergreens, his Magnificat is full of such intricate counterpoint that choruses can seem a bit like an elephant attempting to dance. The obvious solution is the smallest-possible chorus, which is what's heard on the Ricercar Consort recording. Serious followers of Bach performance practice need to hear this: Coordination problems are solved, but aural adjustments are necessary because the individual voice parts have such specific personalities at the expense of an overall choral identity. The disc is filled out by Bach's infrequently heard but worthwhile Missa BWV 234.

Those attached to big-chorus Magnificat performances aren't likely to do better than the Bach Choir of Bethlehem, which has been faithfully recorded in its debut on the Analetka label. The chorus is successfully coordinated, but you can hear it's an uphill battle. One clear source of appeal, though, are the soloists. Star countertenor Daniel Taylor sounds especially good these days, and soprano Doyle, reviewed in the above Messiah, seems more alluring in Bethlehem's less stylistically circumscribed recording. Filler is the Vivaldi Gloria, which poses no uphill challenges and, in comparison to Bach, seems to tap only a fraction of what the chorus can do.

- D.P.S.