A strength in their numbers

The Polyphonic Spree

"Together We're Heavy" (Hollywood)

*** 1/2

The opening song, "We Sound Amazed," has a reference to a "new religion." The next one, "Hold Me Now," mentions a "new age." And there are numerous references to sunshine and light. If Tim Delaughter wants to deflect suggestions that there's something cultish and hippie about his two-dozen-strong band-cum-chamber-orchestra-cum-choir, well, this won't do it. But if he wanted to channel the spirit of the sprawling, robed ensemble's colorful concerts into a strong, inspiring album, he's done a terrific job.

The giddiness of the band's spirited (if semiamateurish) chorus and mix of orchestral and rock instruments echoes Delaughter's zeal, but it's focused into an appealingly professional package. And Delaughter's writing has stepped up as well, as he weaves his clear reference points ("Pet Sounds," "Sgt. Pepper," '70s Saturday morning cartoons) into an increasingly personal fabric.

Such highlights as "Two Thousand Places at Once," about keeping your head in stressful times, aren't so much songs as patchworks of hooks and choruses, but they're killer hooks and choruses. And even at its most hippie-ish, the message of love and hope largely avoids being cloying, while a few self-deflating winks (including the album title) help keep it all grounded.

This may not make new converts, but Spree fans will find much cause to rejoice.

-- Steve Hochman

Soul effort is warm, uplifting

Angie Stone

"Stone Love" (J)

*** 1/2

"Girls of the world, I'm pretty sure that you're feelin' like I'm feelin' this evenin'," R&B; vet Betty Wright declares in the intro to "That Kind," a track that is pure pop-soul confection. "You know sometimes you always feel like there's something ... that can make you laugh better, something that can make you feel better. Oh, I know all about that. Tell 'em what you want, Angie."

Stone celebrates good times not just in that tune but throughout this warm, uplifting, revealing album.

Like most soul singers, the fluid, graceful Stone has reflected on the painful side of relationships. But soul music is also about exorcising pain and "Stone Love" tells us here what romance feels like when it is just blossoming.

Snoop Dogg adds to the charm of "I Wanna Thank Ya" and Anthony Hamilton duets "Stay for a While." Elsewhere, Stone shines on her own, especially the "U-Haul," a song co-written and co-produced by Missy Elliott that serves as a playful statement of survival.

By sticking to a single subject, "Stone Love" lacks the range and ambition of her splendid "Mahogany Soul" album in 2001, but it is still a joy.

-- Robert Hilburn

Brandy gets assist from Timbaland


"Afrodisiac" (Atlantic)

** 1/2

Breaking up is hard to do, but it's been a blessing in disguise for R&B; singer and TV sitcom star Brandy. Her 2003 divorce (and her new romance with basketball star Quentin Richardson) has given her new album some meaty subject matter and a semblance of a story line, and her change of producers from Rodney Jerkins to Timbaland has shaken up Brandyland with the earthiness and eccentricity of the latter's sound.

Timbaland guides Brandy from the sparest of settings to deep funk chambers, dropping in traces of reggae and Middle Eastern, transforming vocal utterances into full-on rhythm tracks, even summoning a spirit of vintage rural soul music. Kanye West produced the album's first single, the relatively bland "Talk About Our Love," but Timbaland is the adventure here.

Brandy is up for the challenge on some levels. Her lyrics about the cycle of desire, deception, betrayal and freedom ring with grace and authenticity (tipping her hand, she quotes a Coldplay lyric in one song and samples the group in another). Her dusky, grainy voice has a sultry allure on ballads, and she nails the percussive vocal line of "Sadiddy," which has the feel of a kids' rhyming game.

But Brandy has always tended toward blandness and is either unequipped or too restrained to unleash the soulful vocal flights that give R&B; its distinctive stamp. And nowhere do you hear the pain and conflict you'd expect from someone who's dating a member of the Clippers.

-- Richard Cromelin

This diet of Roots fails to nourish

The Roots

"The Tipping Point" (Geffen)


Known as "the hip-hop band," this Philadelphia-based collective has garnered more acclaim for its consistently stellar stage show than for its recordings, on which core members ?uestlove (drums), Black Thought (raps), Kamal Gray (keyboards) and Leonard "Hub" Hubbard (bass) often deliver minimalist grooves and lyrics about little more than Black Thought's microphone prowess.

The same holds true for the majority of the crew's surprisingly sedate fifth major label studio album (due Tuesday). Whereas some of the group's earlier material contained a mix of thought-provoking subject matter and knockout beats (see 1999's masterful "Things Fall Apart"), there is little meat to this collection. The beats are often stripped down to bland, drum-driven backdrops and the raps have little direction and/or meaning. On the single "Don't Say Nuthin'," Black Thought mumbles his way through the chorus, coming off more clumsy and confusing than stylish or adventurous.

When Black Thought does deliver poignant social commentary, as on the chilling "Guns Are Drawn," his vocals are muddled in the guitar-driven groove and sandwiched within a feeble chorus. The Roots have always been more about the music than the lyrics, but "Tipping Point" excels at neither.

-- Soren Baker

Albums are rated on a scale of one star (poor), two stars (fair), three stars (good) and four stars (excellent). The albums are already released unless otherwise noted.

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