Flaming Lips
Clouds Taste Metallic
(Warner Bros.)

Let's play free association.
What's the first thing that comes to mind when you think "Oklahoma City"? Right-wing kooks with fertilizer bombs? The site of the world's tallest radio tower (KOMA)? The famed test market for both McRibs and MTV?

Not if you're a Flaming Lips fan.
True, the Lips are from OKC, but that's irrelevant here (except to consider how a place so, well, normal could produce such a surreal rock band).

The point is, if you're a Flaming Lips fan, there's probably no telling what tangent your mind will go tripping merrily down given the room to roam.

A prompt like "Apple" could elicit the response "psychiatric explorations of the fetus with needles." "Iced Tea" might easily spark the phrase "lightning strikes the postman."

So why should "Oklahoma City" yield "the Lips' hometown" instead of, say, "Kim's watermelon gun punctured my yolk"?

Psychedelic gibberish? No--Flaming Lips song titles and words. There is a difference. Compare the schizophrenic scribblings of a Berkeley burnout "street artist" to a Salvador Dali painting and you get the idea.

While the Lips' lyrics don't make sense, per se, the imagery is brilliant--switching from scenes of kaleidoscopic, blanket-of-flowers beauty to deeply disturbed glimpses of a nightmare as if God and the devil are wrestling over the remote control. Embrace it or fear it--either way, the stuff gets into your head.

So do the tunes.
Lead vocalist Wayne Coyne's high, intentionally off-key warblings are an acquired taste (think Daniel Johnston with better mikes), but palatable in the end because they draw attention to the vivid webs Coyne weaves. If he were singing pretty, it would be too easy for the listener to get disoriented in the Lips' sprawling soundscape and walk right past the poetry.

The synesthesia in the title Clouds Taste Metallic is appropriate for this album. Melodies shape-shift and slow-boil like cotton balls in the sky, while light distortion on the double and sometimes triple guitars gives the Lips' latest a subtle yet definite metal flavor--like copper in blood.

Ignored by the real world for almost a decade, Flaming Lips finally broke big last year with "She Don't Use Jelly," a single off Transmissions From the Satellite Heart (past Lips titles include Providing Needles for Your Balloons and Hit to Death in the Future Head). "Jelly" earned the band a Lollapalooza spot and the more dubious honor of a guest performance on Beverly Hills, 90210.

The best bet for a similar hit to emerge from Clouds is the parading, White Albumesque chorus on "Christmas at the Zoo," though the random feedback and tuning noise in the song's intro make it an inside straight at best. False starts, studio chatter and the buzz/pop of patch cords being plugged into amps are scattered throughout this recording, creating the comfortable (and highly noncommercial) feel of a home movie.

Spotlight tracks include the buzz saw and twang of "Kim's Watermelon Gun"; the offcenter love ditty "When You Smile"; and the dizzy "Placebo Headwound," in which Coyne poses a rapid-fire series of questions on--among other subjects--outer space, avian migration patterns and the existence of God.

Also excellent is the album's opener, "The Abandoned Hospital Ship," which begins with a slow crescendo of piano and Coyne's wailings, then gives way to a piercing guitar riff, which in turn rises and crashes into a deep pool of drums and bass like a perfectly curled wave.

The best word on experiencing this album is to let it come to you--just kick back with your arm under your head and watch the wonder reveal itself among the clouds. Here's to the heartland.--David Holthouse

Jeff Beck
Best of Beck
(Epic)

Here's a trend the critics have yet to dissect--a recording company issues a comprehensive boxed set of an artist, only to release a pared-down, single-disc retrospective two years later. It happened with the Byrds in 1994, and now it's Jeff Beck's turn. The good news is that Spinal Tap guitarist Nigel Tufnel's real-life look-alike greatly benefits from Epic's nip-and-tuck job, which cut losers like the guitarist's 1968 psychedelic Muzak version of "Love Is Blue" and his 1967 solo single "Hi Ho Silver Lining" on which the Jefferoo had the audacity to sing. Yikes!

Unlike his Yardbirds predecessor Eric Clapton, Beck had no loyalty to the blues, which left him free to explore all the uncharted territory in rock--including ragas, Indian drones, metal and jazz/fusion. He could jump from an overtly heavy "Jailhouse Rock" to an exquisitely understated rendition of Mingus' "Goodbye, Pork Pie Hat" with uncanny ease. And Jeff's place in pop heaven was assured by "Beck's Bolero," a classic track featuring John Paul Jones on bass and Keith Moon on drums that launched a zillion Jimmy Page overdubs. All three tracks are included on this "best of."

There's a healthy sampling of the best of Rod Stewart here, as well--Rod the Mod is the featured vocalist on nearly half the tunes. Sadly, MTV watchers probably know Beck solely from his collaboration with Stewart on "People Get Ready."

That's one crying shame this affordable introduction to Beck caneasily rectify. (P.S. Adirective to all record-store employees: Anyone who brings this disc to the counter asking if "Loser" is on it should betaken to the back of thestore and severely knocked about the head with Ugly Kid Joe returns.)--Serene Dominic

Inbreds
Kombinator
(PF/TAG Recordings/Atlantic)

Like a Calvin Klein undies ad, Kombinator is a study in minimalism. Except in place of pouty, sallow-eyed models are two grassroots rockers: bassist Mike O'Neill and drummer Dave Ullrich.

Although rhythm sections rarely score big on their own, the Inbreds harness a raw, chunky sound that makes the need for guitars seem vastly overrated. O'Neill's nappy bass lines have more fuzz than a Dunkin' Donuts parking lot.

These Canadian chart-toppers shovel as many decibels as most four- or five-piece rock bands, but Mike and Dave's biggest asset is their ability to write pure, provocative lyrics. While several of this album's 14cuts border on the obscure (especially the four-track instrumentals "Scratch" and "Last Fight"), centerpiece efforts like "Any Sense of Time" and "Turn My Head" display a stream-of-consciousness knack for taking listeners straight to the heart of truth. O'Neill's sparse crooning makes the recipe all the more palatable.

With Kombinator roaming the charts, the Inbreds could last long enough to father a whole lineage of rhythm-only duos in years to come.--Leigh Silverman

Beat Farmers
Manifold
(Sector 2)

San Diego's Beat Farmers are the band too tough to die. They've overcome obscurity, drummer Country Dick Montana's thyroid cancer and a series of recording-company scrapes to outlast all of their roots-rock contemporaries from the early Eighties.

With their mutant stew of rock, blues, C&W, punkabilly and lots of booze, these rough-and-tumble hombres are still making the same blazing roadhouse music as always: "raunch 'n' roll," if you will.

The twin guitar and vocal attack of Joey Harris and Jerry Raney is the nastiest, fire-breathing, two-headed dragon you could ever hope to hear. The Farmers balance that monster's ferocity with Country Dick's trademark trailer-park humor. You'd best pucker up to the tailpipe and suck the high octane from this Manifold.--Marlow Bond

Lenny Kravitz
Circus
(Virgin)

On the opening cut of Lenny Kravitz's latest album, the rock star falls just short of writing off his own existence.

The song "Rock 'n' Roll Is Dead" is a standard indictment of the fabled rock 'n' roll lifestyle: "You're living for an image ... you got 500 women in your bed."

Look who's talking. Kravitz himself has always played rock star to the hilt--not in gross displays of decadence, but rather through pronounced narcissism and pretentiousness.

Rock 'n' roll is clearly not dead, but (knock on wood) it has evolved from the days when rock stars seriously thought they were serious antihero sex symbols with a mandate to sermonize. Kravitz's continued adherence to this ridiculous, oft-parodied posturing is what makes him--even more than his decidedly retrogressive music--an anachronism in modern pop music.

And while bands like Urge Overkill get away with Kravitzlike stud rock because they riff with tongues in cheeks, Kravitz is all the more difficult to stomach because he's so lacking in irony.

However, if you can separate the music from the silly rock star who created it (or if you actually dig Kravitz's pose), then you can view Circus as a better-than-average rock recording. "Magdalene" bursts with as much melody and enthusiasm as Matthew Sweet; "Can't Get You Off My Mind" sways midtempo like the country-flavored rock of the Seventies; and "Don't Go and Put a Bullet in Your Head" is driven by a surprisingly nonretro drum-machine beat.

Circus is also interesting for its heavy religious content. Though Kravitz's hippified vision of world harmony goes back to his first single (1989's "Let Love Rule"), never has he sounded more overtly Christian than here on songs like "God Is Love" and "The Resurrection."

Traditional Christians will likely find his mix of sexuality (naked Lennys abound on the CD booklet) with religion offensive, while secular fans may call his beatitudes creepy. But if gangsta rap and left-wing folkare valid themes in pop music, there's certainly room for Kravitz's spiritual convictions and positive vibe.--Roni Sarig

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