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Alicia Keys

Unplugged (J Records)

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Can anyone remember the last great live R&B album? If you disqualify Prince bootlegs, the question becomes further vexing, and this CD doesn't help matters any. Why it fails to impress is even harder to discern. After all, pianist Alicia Keys is everything critics have demanded: a skillful, self-sufficient, soul-singer/songwriter, who plays her own instrument and is no industry tool. It's just that hearing these tunes from her first two albums, confidently performed, waxily recorded, and smothered with horns and backing vocals, you can't help but wish it were all a little more exciting as well.

Like the majority of urban-music performances these days, this one is heavy on vamps and virtuosity. Somewhere around the (retitled) cover of Prince's "How Come You Don't Call Me," Keys' listen-to-me runs start to lose their novelty. And having Maroon 5's Adam Levine (who's inexplicably appeared on every urban release in the past six months) sub for Mick Jagger on the Stones' "Wild Horses" doesn't break the ennui. Polished, polite, and even powerful at times -- see Keys' Philly-soul tearjerker "You Don't Know My Name" -- Unplugged is still too short on juice.

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