*** 1/2 THE ROOTS, "THE
TIPPING POINT" (GEFFEN)
The title of the Roots' fifth studio album comes from Malcolm Gladwell's
2000 book The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference,
which was about the critical moments that touch off social phenomena and how
"messages and behaviors spread just like viruses."
The Philadelphia collective led by drummer and producer Ahmir "?uestlove"
Thompson has been agitating for change in hip-hop for a dozen years now,
calling for more musical innovation and a stronger message of social
consciousness. The Roots' uncompromising values have won them a reverential
cult following, but mass popularity has eluded them. Clearly, Thompson, who
describes this disc as a summation of everything the group has done to date,
is hoping that this is the group's tipping point.
In fact, while the album is stronger than 2002's "Phrenology," it falls a
bit short of 2002's "Things Fall Apart," which remains the band's
masterpiece. But on tracks such as the opening "Star," "Somebody Gotta Do
It" and the epic closer "Melting Pot," the Roots maintain their reputation
as one of the most diverse and creative groups in modern hip-hop or R&B,
creating a "virtual duet" with Sly and the Family Stone on a reworked
version of "Everybody Is a Star" at one moment, and evoking a cross between
John Coltrane's Quartet and Parliament-Funkadelic the next.
Meanwhile, rapper Black Thought (Tariq Trotter) serves as a powerful
focal point -- he is significantly underrated for both the style and the
substance of his raps. He also gets some prestigious assistance here from
several guest MCs, including Jean Grae and comedian Dave Chappelle.
*** 1/2 THE POLYPHONIC SPREE, "TOGETHER WE'RE HEAVY" (HOLLYWOOD)
The 25-member Dallas mini-orchestra has been dismissed by some critics as
a novelty act, and there is a fair amount of shtick in the Polyphonic
Spree's live presentation. Musicians clad in white robes play everything
from theremin to tympani and French horn to Moog synthesizer while evoking
some odd combination of the Beach Boys circa "Pet Sounds," the "sunshine
pop" of early '70s bands like the Association and the Fifth Dimension and
the post-hippie "God rock" of "Godspell" and "Jesus Christ Superstar."
None of it would hold up, however, if it wasn't for the strength of
bandleader Tim DeLaughter's songwriting. The band's second album represents
its first proper crack at the recording studio, and it's a big leap forward
from the independently released "Beginning Stages of... The Polyphonic
Spree." Irresistibly catchy, giddily optimistic and fleshed out with the
group's absurdly ambitious ork-pop arrangements, tunes such as "We Sound
Amazed," "Two Thousand Places" and the title track ultimately succeed
because under all the filigree, they're great pop songs. And there's nothing
novel about that.