CD Reviews: Alicia Keys, Bob Dylan

Bob Dylan, "Christmas In The Heart" (Columbia)

Do you hear what I hear? Bob Dylan singing Christmas carols! Ho ho ho.

The first reaction: This must be a joke. At age 68, rock's greatest troubadour remains a formidable force, as several fine recent albums have shown. But Dylan's also a Jew who declared himself born again at one point but never recorded a Christmas album - until now.

And indeed, "Christmas In The Heart" is pretty funny, with the toll of braying "How does it feel?" for 45 years evident throughout. Dylan's vocals are wobbly, froggy, choppy, strained, strangled and off-key, making it easy to forget he might be the most influential, most imitated singer ever. Here his voice could clear a room, and it's even more jarring because he's backed by a chorus of Ray Conniff-style crooners.

Still, this is Bob Dylan, and fans will love it - at least some of it.

The secular tunes are best, especially a trio of obscurities. "The Christmas Blues" swings in the style of Dylan's recent albums. The bouncy, accordion-driven "Must Be Santa" includes this classic Dylanesque couplet: "Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen; Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon." And the Hawaiian tune "Christmas Island" is sung with ardor appropriate for someone from Minnesota.

- Steven Wine, The Associated Press

Alicia Keys, "The Element of Freedom" (J Records)

On Alicia Keys' previous CDs, the gifted singer-songwriter-pianist presented songs that were epic and impeccable - more so than her actual albums. Tunes like "Fallin'," "If I Ain't Got You" and "Like You'll Never See Me Again" are timeless grooves that helped make the R&B singer a global, Grammy-winning superstar.

What's unfortunate is that "The Element of Freedom," Keys' fourth studio release, does not have a jam as outstanding as her past hits. Most of the songs are mediocre, like the first single, the empty-sounding "Doesn't Mean Anything." Even her duet with Beyonce on the Swizz Beatz-produced "Put It In a Love Song" is a disappointment - it's an amateurish dance tune on which the guest overpowers the main star.

Perhaps the best thing you can say about "Freedom" is that the songs mesh well and create a smooth sound, albeit weak one.

Of course, Keys' soaring voice always shines, even on so-so songs. It especially stands out on the yearning "Un-thinkable (I'm Ready)," the gloomy but groovy opening track, "Love Is Blind," and "Try Sleeping With a Broken Heart," an elevated drum-filled pop ballad that showcases the singer's versatility.

- Mesfin Fekadu

Them Crooked Vultures, "Them Crooked Vultures" (DGC/Interscope)

Them Crooked Vultures isn't so much a supergroup as it is a fantasy camp: Foo Fighter Dave Grohl and chum Josh Homme (from Queens of the Stone Age) trade riffs and swarthy thunder-rock with Led Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones.

Grohl loves sitting in with his heroes, from Nine Inch Nails to Paul McCartney, and he's in a constant battle with Jack White over who can star in more side projects. But that restless spirit is born of fanboy love, and you just know he's sporting a big goofy grin as he makes like John "Bonzo" Bonham, crashing the cymbals behind the kit.

Homme is having a blast, too, wailing like a '70s stoner-rock god and shredding like a guitar hero as the legendary JPJ leads with bass lines and keyboard hooks more acrobatic than the next. It's not all a Zep homage, although "New Fang" definitely has a Trampled Under Foot stutter-swagger to it.

Cuts range from the deep, purply prog stomp of "Caligulove" to the faux-acidic White Room swirls of "Scumbag Blues." Lyrics run from femme fatales to topical malaise, but the complex rhythms and multilayers of racket (including Grohl's Foo-ey backing vocals) are more important than the silly-pompous meaning of "Mind Eraser," "No Chaser" or "No One Loves Me & Neither Do I."

It all gets a bit sloggy by album's end, but you'll have a ton of fun before you need a break. Reminds us of: Cream, with hairier knuckles.

- Sean Daly, St. Petersburg Times