It's no masterpiece, but it'll do. After releasing his albums independently for a few years, and flying well off the radar, Prince has signed on with Sony and released a pop album that reminds us that, yes, he's still a force to be reckoned with. On Musicology, Prince plays largely to his strengths, setting aside the stylistic flights of fancy (jazz-fusion, heavy jamming) for a solid effort that aims to get him back in the game. It should do the trick — especially seeing as he drew 19,000 fans to the St. Pete Times Forum a couple Mondays ago.

Musicology combines hard funk, smoother R&B, a couple of winning ballads and pop-rock pieces that look back to his earlier days. While Prince has in the past embraced elements of hip-hop, they're largely absent here. It's as if he's saying that he can regain his stardom without giving quarter to trends — that just being his genius self is good enough.

The disc opens with the title track, a manifesto of sorts. "Musicology," a bracing slab of lean, terse funk in the James Brown mold, name-checks JB, Sly and EW&F, "Kick[ing] the old school joint/ For the true funk soldiers."

The brash funk songs — "Life O' the Party," "Illusion, Coma, Pimp & Circumstance" — are the best on Musicology. Prince eases off the accelerator on a couple of suppler R&B tunes ("What do You Want Me To Do?," "Dear Mr. Man") that are nearly as effective. And he delivers on absolutely ace soul ballad, an unabashed love song, "Call My Name," which beautifully showcases the man's exquisitely expressive singing.

Prince comes off as a little rusty when it comes to rockin'. "The Marrying Kind" has trouble settling on a melody; it's burdened by too many stops and starts and busy riffs. Similarly, "If Eye Was the Man in Ur Life" doesn't quite find its focus. On the other hand, "Cinnamon Girl" possesses the kind of straight 4/4 momentum, punchy guitar part and tight hook that marked Prince's better rock songs of old.

"Cinnamon Girl" tells of a young woman with "mixed heritage/ Never knew the meaning of color lines/ 9/11 turned that all around/ When she got accused of this crime." The disc's only other topical song, "Dear Mr. Man," laments the callousness of our government's power structure ("Ain't nothin' fair about welfare/ Ain't no assistance in AIDS/ Ain't nothing affirmative about ur actions/ 'Til the people get paid."). The rest of the time, Prince is parsing love politics, and generally weighing in heavily on the side of marriage and fidelity.

Fans can only hope that Prince's marriage with Sony works out, that he doesn't resort to scrawling "Slave" on his face like he did during his acrimonious latter days with Warner Bros., that he doesn't return to his Internet-only scheme. Prince functions best as a star, which still requires a major-label presence, and Musicology is a step in the right direction.

The Ride
A bunch of Los Lobos' pals and admirers turned out to perform on The Ride, which celebrates the band's 30th anniversary, but the disc does not come off as one of those vanity projects full of shallow star turns. Instead, it sounds like one of the greatest bands in the world making music with a select group of friends — friends that include Ruben Blades, Elvis Costello, Tom Waits, Bobby Womack, Mavis Staples, Dave Alvin and others. The Ride comes off as loose and limitless, and even more eclectic than Los Lobos' stuff over the last decade. The band and its collaborators strut through rock, R&B, blues, various Latin styles, folk and a whiff of country, all of it refracted through the singular LL prism — and yet different, due to the slate of new voices. Because these four East L.A. Chicanos and one Anglo are so musically generous, they end up sublimating a fair share of their identity on The Ride. And that can be at first a little disconcerting for long-haul fans. But then you realize how absolutely fucking cool it is to hear Bobby Womack revive "Across 110th Street" with these fellas, or how natural they sound backing Blades on the sultry salsa "Ya Se Va," or how deep the soul is when they join Mavis Staples on "Someday," or how the band and Waits so gleefully tap into their demented side on the churning, indefinable "Kitate" — and then it all makes sense. 1/2 —ERIC SNIDER

Playing with the Light
Paste Records
It's when I get all giggly over discs like this that I wonder how anybody could think I'm a music snob. Washington, D.C., siblings (and proprietors of that city's Jammin' Java venue) Luke and Daniel Brindley have crafted an infectious, unabashedly accessible Americana album that succeeds without pandering to the cliches of either the pop-country mainstream or the roots-rock fringe. It's not that the riffs aren't familiar, or the hooks obvious. It's more that Playing with the Light goes straight for the song, rather than worrying about splitting hairs between alt-country and power-pop. Less lush than The Pernice Brothers, less arty than Wilco and less self-consciously twangy than, well, pretty much any collegiate y'allternative band you'd care to name, this brief, subtly textured record stakes its claim much closer to the middle ground — and rock 'n' roll — but doesn't compromise quality in the bargain. The rough-toned rave-ups (the title track, "Roman Candle," "Slow Burn") are damn near impeccable; mid-tempo pop tunes like "The Crazy One" and guaranteed roots-radio hit "Evergreen" come off as clever and solidly penned rather than contrived. "Hudson River" veers a little too close to Jackson Browne's more schmaltzy territory, and "Harder, Easier, Better" plods just a bit. They're still above-average cuts, however, and that's the worst thing I can say about anything on the album. The Brindley Brothers aren't pushing any envelopes here, but with their knack for songcraft, they don't really have to. —SCOTT HARRELL

Putumayo Presents Sahara Lounge
Americans too often neglect the efforts of performers from other parts of the globe, which is why Sahara Lounge is an ideal mix for people looking to broaden their auditory horizons. This amalgam of electronic rhythms captures sounds from such Middle Eastern countries as Lebanon, Morocco, Iran and Turkey. Exotic tunes and soothing ambience make this the type of record intercultural music enthusiasts live for. Perfect for a candlelit dinner or a lengthy car ride, these funky and melodic tones create a blissful aura. Some songs are slightly drawn-out, but Sharif's "Shariz," Nickodeumus' "Cleopatra in New York" and Justin Adams' "Desert Road" are beautifully executed pieces. Lyrics sung exclusively in Middle Eastern languages add to the CD's synergy, yielding a hypnotic and undeniably enchanting compilation. As an added feel-good bonus, a portion of album sales will go to the Putumayo Cross-Cultural Initiative, a nonprofit organization promoting cultural acceptance through music and education. 1/2 —WHITNEY MEERS

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