The Polyphonic Spree, “Together We’re Heavy” (Hollywood) — The Polyphonic Spree has enough members to staff a performance of Handel’s “Water Music” with a few to spare. The group counts 23 people as members on its Web site. Under the leadership of singer Tim DeLaughter, the Dallas group dons white or multicolored robes when they perform — a visual metaphor for their second record, “Together We’re Heavy,” which blends many voices and instruments into a big wall of sound. It was a task to make “Heavy” cohesive with so many elements — horns, strings, keyboards, drums, bass, guitar and a 10-person choir — and for that the Spree should get compliments. But if the album has a fault, it’s that 10 songs flow into one another, at times making it hard to distinguish one track from the last. “Together We’re Heavy” perseveres because of DeLaughter and his group’s limitless energy. Perhaps the Spree should tackle “The Messiah” next. (Mark Donahue, AP)
Brandy, “Afrodisiac” (Atlantic) — 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 new romance with Los Angeles Clippers player Quentin Richardson) has given her new album some meaty subject matter, and her change of producers has shaken up Brandyland. Timbaland guides Brandy from the sparest setting to deep funk chambers, dropping in traces of reggae and Middle Eastern, transforming vocal utterances into full-on rhythm tracks. Her lyrics about desire, deception, betrayal and freedom ring with authenticity. Her grainy voice has a sultry allure on ballads, but Brandy has always tended toward blandness and is either unequipped or too restrained to unleash soulful vocal flights. (Richard Cromelin, Los Angeles Times)
Brahms, “Deutsche Volkslieder” (EMI Classics) — The two greatest vocal recitalists of the mid-20th century, baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and soprano Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, can be heard in their vocal prime, with the great Gerald Moore at the piano, in one of the best bargains we will see this year: a remastered 1966 recording of Brahms’ complete “Deutsche Volkslieder.” Many of the great melodies of the world are heard here. In its day, this recording satisfied on all counts; in this remastered format, it sounds even better. (Joseph McLellan, Washington Post)
10,000 Maniacs, “Time Capsule” (Rhino) — “Time Capsule” brings together videos made by the 10,000 Maniacs and other footage culled from the early 1980s through 1993. Given that all except three videos was previously released on VHS, the DVD is a missed opportunity to dig deeper into the vaults for material. The best bits are early footage with former lead singer Natalie Merchant at her charismatic best. For any fan who doesn’t have a copy of “Time Capsule,” it’s a must . But for those hoping for something more, it’s a disappointment. (Scott Bauer, AP)
The Roots, “The Tipping Point” (Geffen/Interscope) — Known as “the hip-hop band,” this Philadelphia collective has garnered more acclaim for its stellar stage show than for 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 most of the crew’s latest album. Whereas some earlier material contained thought-provoking subject matter and knockout beats, there is little meat to this collection. When Black Thought does deliver poignant social commentary, as on the chilling “Guns Are Drawn,” his vocals are muddled. The Roots have always been more about the music than the lyrics, but “Tipping Point” excels at neither. (Soren Baker, Los Angeles Times)
Various Artists, “Travel the World With Putumayo” (Putumayo) — Putumayo, the world music label known for its colorful compilation CDs, has released a DVD featuring videos from its impressive stable of artists. “Travel the World With Putumayo” has clips from Senegalese, Czech and Nigerian artists, though few have any broad recognition. Perhaps the most recognized name is Oliver Mtukudzi, who’s performed his hit “Hear Me Lord” with Bonnie Raitt, and has a live version on the DVD. Some of the videos, like “Nari Nari,” make use of advanced technology and multiple locations to produce a higher quality product. Others, like Chico Cesar’s playful romp through his Brazilian village’s on “Mama Africa,” are more reminiscent of the “home video” feel of MTV’s early days. Regardless of the technical prowess, it’s refreshing to see footage from African and Eastern European nations that isn’t behind a voice-over for a humanitarian aid organization. There are people dancing and children singing, showing joyful daily life in even the barest communities. Many videos cull their extras from locals on the street, adding to the spontaneous energy behind the songs. A major bonus is hidden in the “special features” section — you can play subtitles under each video in English, Spanish, French or German. There are few crowd reaction shots, but the interaction between the artists is telling of the respect and love they have for their music. (Aimee Maude Sims, AP)
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