Bilal's cuts recall soul pioneers

Bilal takes neo-soul to a higher plateau.

Bilal and the Beatles, Robert Plant and the Killer of Las Vegas share the talent spotlight with new CDs and DVD packages this week.

PHILLY'S OWN: It's easy to imagine the "suits" at major recording labels wondering outloud "What are we gonna do with this?" when auditioning the long-in-coming new album from Bilal, "Airtight's Revenge" (Plug Research, A).

Taking neo-soul to a higher plateau, with layer upon layer of natural and synth keyboards playing off his limber, dynamic vocal lines, hip-hop percussion, jazz/rock/Eastern guitar jams and spacey, backward-tape loops, Bilal's carnival of funky sounds and light is unlike anything else out there.

And yet, I'd argue, this music has considerable appeal - as the next leap forward for those who've admired soul pioneers like Stevie Wonder, Prince, Gil Scott Heron and Curtis Mayfield with a knack for speaking their minds and drawing in disparate segments of the population.

A song like "Who Are You" connects both sonically and thematically to our notions of separate identity, and the common humanity we should be addressing.

The "us versus them" theme also scores "Robots" and complaints about the almighty "The Dollar" that turns all into slaves or slave masters.

Philadelphia-based Bilal is at his most theatrical in "Flying," a multipart parable of a drug dealer's daughter lost in the ozone. And he's most personal in the heart-tugging "Little One" dedicated to his challenged children.

Can Bilal pull off his sonic adventures in concert? Find out tonight, as he celebrates "Airtight's Revenge" with a release day party/show for home towners at Johnny Brenda's, 1201 N. Frankford Ave. (Doors open 9 p.m., tickets $25.)

FOLK U (NIVERSITY): If you loved Robert Plant's excursion into Appalachian mood music with Alison Krauss - the 2009 Grammy Album of Year "Raising Sand" - you'll be pleased by his new extensions on the them e "Band of Joy" (Rounder, B). Buddy Miller, ace instrumentalist on that last project, returns as producer/lead player on this set, while Patty Griffin fills the "haunted" harmonist role, most familiarly on the tunes "Silver Rider" and "Monkey" from the husband/wife group Low. But no mere clone affair, Plant expands our purview with a giddy rocker of the early '60's "You Can't Buy My Love" (probably a Beatles "answer" tune), evokes a bluesy spiritual aura "Falling In Love Again," sends a twangy kiss to heaven via Townes Van Zandt's "Harm's Swift Way" and even finds something new in the campfire perennial "Cindy I'll Marry You Someday."

ALL THE YOUNG DUDES: Clearly he was leaning that way with The Killers. But Brandon Flowers' first solo side project "Flamingo" (Island, B+) fully underscores his chronicler vision as the Springsteen of Sin City. Named after a once grand, down on its heels Las Vegas hotel/casino, the set is chock-full of anthemic tales of "Jilted Lovers and Broken Hearts" and obliviousness to the city's gaudy movie set facade: "Give us your dreamers, your harlots and your sin/Las Vegas didn't nobody tell you the house will always win?"

How high-pitched/androgynous can one guy sound while singing about his devotion to girls? Kevin Barnes takes it to the limit on the Of Montreal set "False Priest" (Polyvinyl, B-). Think David Bowie, Sylvester and Prince, only gay(er). And using bigger words - like fractious and marginalize. Of Montreal and Janelle Monae, who sings on this album, perform tomorrow at the Electric Factory.

The stranger-in-a-strange-land juxtapositions of Justin Townes Earle's "Harlem River Blues" (Bloodshot, B) are fun. Think down-home (new country, strummy folk, rockabilly) musical tones applied to tales of big city life, from "One More Night in Brooklyn" to "Workin' for the MTA." You're doing daddy (Steve) proud, dude!

Remember that season seven "American Idol" wannabe so down on his luck, and hungry for a music career, he was living in his car? Josiah Leming didn't last long on the show. Yet don't be surprised if his debut album of exceedingly well sung, emotive piano pop "Come On Kid" (Warner Bros, B) winds up being the most successful set ever from an "A.I." castoff. This cutie is the perfect "next step" for Justin Bieber fans to follow like, um, lem(m) ings?

FAB FOUR NIGHTS: Just realized what's historically wrong about "Mad Men." That 1960s set show should be filmed in black and white. The revelation came from watching "The 4 Complete Ed Sullivan Shows Starring the Beatles" (Hip O, A), an amazing, monochromatic time capsule that captures the thrill of their American debut appearances in a way earlier Beatles clip jobs never could. Hear the crowd audibly groaning as Ed teases the Fab 4's return, then throws it to a commercial. (It could give him an Anacin headache.) Also note how fans sit on their hands as funny man Morty Gunty bombs or film star Mitzi Gaynor and her chorus boys sing "the blues." A few other acts do score well with the youthful audience - like the cast from "Oliver" and fellow Liverpudlian Cilla Black. But more often the wait seems interminable, before the Mop Tops return to bang out "I Saw Her Standing There" or "I Want To Hold Your Hand" (done on all three of their February '64 appearances). And then they make Ed and America wait 19 months (to Sept. 12, 1965) before returning to show evolution - the hair now even shaggier and the material maturing with "Ticket To Ride" and "Yesterday." "And next week, we'll be in color . . . with Dino, Desi & Billy," Ed announces at the end. Like that could make them interesting.