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BRIEFS Alicia Keys, "Unplugged" (J)

Learning to love Alicia Keys the way Grammy voters do hasn't been easy. Her studio albums seem cold affairs. But playing live is where Keys lives, and "Unplugged" makes a good, warm living space.

It would be easy for the jazz-soul pianist-singer to light up her portraits of romance gone wrong by merely adding to the studio versions. But she subtracts all gloss, reworking slippery electric-piano ballads such as "You Don't Know My Name" into rough-hewn dialogues with her background singers.

The husky-voiced Keys turns the grand "Karma" into a small gypsy reverie with a solo-violin lament, and "Heartburn" becomes a brass fantasy worthy of James Brown at his most intimate.

Sometimes she's too shrill. Take the slow "A Woman's Worthy" -- please. Even her new, Philly-soulful "Stolen Moments," written with Al Green, is off-key. But she's trying, richly reworking her arrangements while accommodating guests (Adam Levine on the Stones' "Wild Horses," plus rappers Damian Marley, Common and Mos Def) who never overstay their welcome.

-- A.D. Amorosi, Knight Ridder Newspapers

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Liz Phair, "Somebody's Miracle" (Capitol)

No one should expect Liz Phair to make another "Exile in Guyville," her 1993 magnum opus of tart and explicit observations about gender roles and sexual dynamics. And no one should deny the 38-year-old mother the right to pursue her explicit desire to make money from radio-friendly singles, as she did successfully with 2003's self-titled album. But it's not too much to expect a little consistency.

On much of "Somebody's Miracle," Phair looks for a hit follow-up to "Why Can't I" with innocuous and cliched junk such as the title track and the Madonna-lite ballad "Everything to Me." But on a few songs -- often distinguished by her naturally off-key vocals -- she tells sharp and discomforting tales: "Table for One," a description of an alcoholic's humiliation, ranks with her best.

-- Steve Klinge, Knight Ridder Newspapers

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