A Soulful English Posse to the Rescue : LL Cool J walks with a panther, Syd Straw has a 'Surprise,' Manilow rethinks : SOUL II SOUL "Keep On Movin'," Virgin **** : POP STARS ***** Great Balls of Fire **** Knockin' On Heaven's Door *** Good Vibrations ** Maybe Baby * Ain't That a Shame

Wasn't there a time when honest-to-goodness self-expression was a part of popular music? These days it often seems that the concept of soul has been battered into submission by runaway drum-machine beats and over-amped, under-talented vocalists. Well, the soul-starved can give those vintage Aretha Franklin and Bob Marley albums a break. Soul II Soul's debut album is a bright, cheery and innovative collection that will go over as well with hip-hop hungry teens as with those having more sophisticated tastes.

This British dance posse isn't a conventional band. Leader and producer Jazzie B. uses the Jamaican term "sound system" when describing this diverse alliance of female vocalists, deejays and musicians. Borrowing beats from the mellow side of New York hip-hop and adding string backing in lieu of standard R&B; horns, the group arrives at a natural, uncontrived sound with strong reggae and African influences.

The styles may be mixed, but the sound is solid as a rock. From the jazzy flute soloing on "African Dance" to the gorgeously arranged, a cappella "Back to Life," Soul II Soul shows that the sound-system concept not only works, but also may be an effective way of presenting a wide range of talent.

The coolest cuts are the fine down-tempo dance grooves. Caron Wheeler takes the mike on the current single, "Keep on Movin'," a breezy, romantic composition that's moving up the pop charts, while vocalist Do'reen lays down her free-style lyrics on the aptly titled up-tempo house groove "Happiness." Do'reen perhaps sums up the Soul II Soul feeling best. As the warm and funky beats of "Fairplay" fade, the vocalist repeats the chorus, " ... It's all about expression."

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