Despite its poor sales performance, King is obviously the favorite of FNM's Billy Gould, the band's bassist and leader by default. The Gould-produced Album of the Year (with Roli Mosimann) follows too steadfastly its elder brother's game plan. The targets of the band's barbs haven't changed--Patton's lyrics lash out at consumerism in all shapes ("Got That Feeling"), and the self-absorbed get skewered with swift asides. It's the same enticing mix of slick hipster jive and unbridled cynicism utilized by Steely Dan in the '70s, here goosed by Roddy Bottum's keyboards and the brilliant Mike Bordin on drums.

Nor has the music changed a great deal, at least not for the worse: "Naked in Front of the Computer" is a fussy example of the band's trademark staccato anger; "Mouth to Mouth" slams and deftly dances the tango at the same time; and the Giorgio Moroderlike synth washes of "Stripsearch" meld to a familiar Patton croon, while dangerous riffing ensues at the climax. "Ashes to Ashes" is even better, with its Soundgarden stomp flirting with a New Romanticlike, arms-outstretched melody. These are the best of a 12-song collection that commits the ultimate Faith No More crime: It's a recording that goes down much too smoothly, a surfeit of sugar for such a meager dose of medicine. Missing is that invigorating sense of confusion, replaced by the suspicion that the usual intense concentration placed on the work has been leached away by side projects, such as Bottum's Imperial Teen and Patton's Mr. Bungle; even Bordin has spent most of the past couple of years touring in Ozzy Osbourne's band. Revealingly, Album clocks in at roughly a tidy 43 minutes, resulting in FNM's shortest CD in a decade.

The members of Faith No More seem finally (fatally?) unstrung by their internal differences on this, the misanthropic combo's sixth offering; Gould had to record this piecemeal, with guitarist Jon Hudson (the band's fourth since inception, following the defection of Dean Menta) together with whichever of his bandmates were in his home base of San Francisco at any given time. At that point of a band's career, maybe it's best to call it a day: You risk yourself playing the fool for a lifetime.

--Joshua Sindell

Michael Penn
Resigned
(57 Records/Epic Records)

Five years after Free for All lived up to its name, winding up in the cutout bins before anyone even took it out of the shrink wrap, Michael Penn returns with Resigned, and only the extremists wait with bated breath. He had his shot eight long years ago (with the Top 20 single "No Myth") but aimed too high. Like girlfriend Aimee Mann, Penn has been shuttled from label to label and too often lost in the shuffle; he recorded two fine albums for RCA (March and Free for All), made one more the label didn't want, then found himself living in oblivion. He got the save on Mann's I'm With Stupid (one of the finest recordings of 1995), guested with her again on a Christmas one-off, recorded music no one heard for a movie no one saw (Hard Eight), and had his Epic debut bumped back on the release schedule until it seemed it might never see the light of day. But here it is, finally, worth the wait for those who bothered to stick around--11 short, engaging gems that are at once intimate and somehow huge, grand gestures made by a man who plays to the back of the room but stares only at the front row.

Penn possesses a poptopian vision that connects the Beatles to Badfinger to Matthew Sweet to the Grays, one that plays considerably deeper than it appears at first or 50th glance. Like Mann, Penn creates complex music out of simple melodies, catchy choruses, easy and perhaps even obvious progressions; the notes blend into one another as if they're the only combinations possible until, at the end of 40 minutes, you feel you've heard one impossibly long, unbearably perfect song. Penn writes songs the way long-distance runners breathe, pacing himself for the long haul until it all builds to that final gasp.

The lyrics seem almost beside the point, like filler meant to provide these songs with a reason for being (example: "I am so selfish/I'm absorbed, I am absolved/It's just that you don't get involved"). Penn--working with longtime partner Patrick Warren on keyboards, ex-Grays drummer Dan McCarroll, and producer/57 Records boss man Brendan O'Brien on bass--creates a sound bigger than his black-jeans poetry; the music, filled with guitar waves and Chamberlin echoes and snare-drum kicks, absorbs the lyrics until all that exists are these dramatic hooks ("Try," "Selfish," "Like Egypt Was") and beautiful moments ("Figment of My Imagination," "Small Black Box") that are almost orchestral in concept and dreamlike in execution. Five years may seem like a long time to wait for 40 minutes--pardon, work ethic?--but rarely does so much sound like so little . . . and come off the better for it.

--Robert Wilonsky

Material Issue
Telecommando Americano
(Rykodisc)

Long before the ambiguous ending of Thelma & Louise, there was a similarly disturbing scene at the end of Quadrophenia, director Franc Roddam's 1979 film based on the Who's rock opera about the mod scene in swinging London. The hero, Jimmy (Phil Daniels), was last seen on his scooter, hurtling full-speed toward the edge of the white cliffs of Dover. The final image was of the scooter smashing into the rocks far below, and viewers were left forever wondering whether Jimmy careened over the edge to certain death or jumped off in time to watch the scooter's destruction--a symbolic farewell to his mod persona and his troubled youth.

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