Joan Armatrading

The Key

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Many of the same musicians from Walk Under Ladders return for The Key, but gone are that album's warm island airs. Instead, producer Steve Lillywhite wraps -- some might say smothers -- Armatrading's voice in sophisticated synthesizers (courtesy of Larry Fast) and punchy rock arrangements that are enervating but less inviting than her earlier work. That more aggressive sound didn't come at the cost of commercial success, however, and both "(I Love It When You) Call Me Names" and "Drop the Pilot" (the latter produced by Val Garay) helped push The Key into the U.S. Top 40. Armatrading has always been an excellent communicator, and when given the spotlight -- as on the otherworldly "I Love My Baby" or the sinister "The Dealer" -- she is one of rock's more compelling female artists. Yet the decision to bring Tony Levin's bass up in the mix and find time for Adrian Belew's frenetic solos sells Armatrading's estimable talents short on some tracks. Thankfully, her humor and humanity rise above the arrangements at welcome intervals, notably with "Everybody Gotta Know," "What Do Boys Dream," and "Foolish Pride." Fans of her acoustic music may find The Key a little too aggressive for their tastes, but anyone open to modern rock should enjoy this album.

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