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It's easy, at first, to like, even admire Jane's Addiction singer Perry Farrell. Ever since JA made its way onto a major label in 1988, he's shown off a nasally sonic voice that hits you in the heart and solar plexus at the same time. And he's one of rock's better philosophers--equal parts optimist, pessimist, idealist and nihilist. Better yet, he's not shy about hoisting his advertisements for love and anarchy up the flagpole in the best tradition of enigmatic, poetic lyrics. Like Dylan, Morrison, Bono, and Stipe before him, he's hailed both by fans who can relate to what he's singing about and by those who have no idea what the heck he's doing.

Farrell's great to look at, too, with green surfer dreads, pomo thrift clothes adorning his skinny body, a ring hanging between his nostrils and the spookiest eyes since Johnny Rotten bugging out of his head. Better, he just might be rock 'n' roll's greatest exhibitionist. Farrell has proudly gotten naked to adoring fans on at least two occasions--in a video and on the cover of his band's new album Ritual de lo Habitual.

What's more, Farrell's relationship with girlfriend Casey Niccoli is, by all accounts, beautiful. And he doesn't care who knows it. How deep is their love? Perry made a sculpture of her as naked Siamese twins, lit it on fire, and used the image for the cover of Jane's Addiction's first album for Warner Bros., Nothing's Shocking. He sculpted her into a nude again for the Ritual cover, along with unclothed images of himself and a mysterious m enage a trois-ee named Xiola Blue. (Farrell maintains a remarkably healthy line on sexuality. He says in a press release, "Nobody should feel ashamed or dumb, but feel love and honesty, bisexuality, homosexuality, heterosexuality, anything. If I can make that cool, I would feel like a champ.")

Speaking of Jane's Addiction's album covers, Perry and his group are one of the more likable outfits to challenge First Amendment bashers. Nudity, not 2 Live Crew-style misogyny, is the group's "crime." Some record store owners have blushed at the naked figures on JA's album covers and refused to sell the band's recordings. Perry's response in the Ritual liner notes: "I feel more shame as a man watching a quick-mart being built."

No doubt Farrell will go down as rock's goofiest punk-hippie, a singer given alternately to grandiloquent philosophizing and exposing himself. Jane's Addiction's latest album, for instance, is a heckuva slab, one of the best of this year or any in the postpunk era. JA isn't one of those groundbreaking groups that changes the course of musical history forever, mind you. But Ritual de lo Habitual sure is a nice album to listen to while we wait for the next genius over the horizon to dump a motherlode. Jane's Addiction knows its limitations and takes them to the extreme. They're either today's loudest alternative group or this epoch's most experimental metal band. Guitarist David Navarro is just as noisy, but a lot more romantic than his speed-metal roots might indicate. His work on Ritual is as challenging as it is digestible, though none of his leads tops the first freak-out solo on Nothing's Shocking's "Ocean Size." Rhythm-meisters Eric A. (bass) and Stephen Perkins (drums) know when to beat their chests if the group is in that metal mood and how to turn a corner on a dime when JA grooves on one of its oft-changing tempos.

A run-through of the good stuff on this most delicious dish: "Stop!" starts the record with start 'n' stop chunks of fist-raising metal. "No One's Leaving" is a funky merry-go-round of a song, much more elastic than Nothing's Shocking's "Idiots Rule." "Obvious" ventures not unconfidently into Led Zeppelin (a band whose legacy JA brings to the Nineties), almost-epic keyboard territory. "Been Caught Stealing" boogies sonically. The saga-length "Three Days" lasts almost as along as its title implies, but if it's not alternative radio's answer to "Stairway to Heaven," nothing is. "Of Course," a Gypsy-beat trance that wouldn't sound out of place on a Camper Van Beethoven album, is groovy only if you laugh at it. Roll your eyes, though, if you think the band's taking itself seriously here. And whether the tone is supposed to be solemn or kooky seems to be entirely up to the individual. "Classic Girl" wraps up the album like a pastel steam bath, cleansing the air with wave after wave of soothing guitar.

Then there are two slices of Limburger cheese. You wait and wait for a tasty hook to bite into "Ain't No Right," and it just never shows up. But if Jane's Addiction can underachieve, it can also swing way too far in the opposite direction. "Then She Did . . . " is just ugly, Seventies classical-rock (did someone say Yes?) on which Jane's Addiction falls off the saddle and gets dragged around mercilessly until the song stops.

But back to Perry. Ritual's lyrics are enough to indicate that Farrell is as good as anyone at reminding you just how completely fucked up the world is--and of a thing called hope. In "Stop!" Farrell howls like a preacher standing on the edge of Armageddon: "Save the complaints for a party conversation/The world is loaded, it's lit to pop/And nobody is gonna stop." Words to ponder while some world leaders are figuring out the exchange rate of blood and oil.

If you think that's pessimistic, though, scan the lyrics to "Of Course": "When I was a boy, my big brother held on to my hands/Then he made me slap my own face/I looked up to him then, and still do/He was trying to teach me something/Now I know what it was!" Scoot over, Aesop.

This stuff is thrillingly odd, as is what might be rock's first ode to kleptomania, "Been Caught Stealing," a current alternative-radio hit. If the PMRC ever mails the lyrics to state Senator Jan Brewer, she'll add thievery to the list of things like bestiality that you can't sing about.

Still, it's easy to believe Farrell when he's being sincere. "No One's Leaving" lets love rule over miscegenation in a way that might even make Chuck D smile: "My sister and her boyfriend slept in the park/She had to leave home 'cause he was dark/Now they parade around in New York with a baby boy/He's gorgeous!"

Just when you're starting to dust off the phrase "the new Dylan," though, Farrell dribbles out a line or two like Greg Louganis bumping his head on the diving board. For example, the lyrics of "Three Days" sound like something Charlton Heston might've uttered in The Ten Commandments.

And what can you say about Farrell's extracultural dabblings? Paul Simon, David Byrne, and Sting might have a fourth for bridge if the singer keeps up his pasty-white anthropological co-opting. Besides going way overboard on "Of Course," Farrell decks out the cover of Ritual with Santaria-derived religious objects and gets bristlingly defensive about his neo-African look in "No One's Leaving": "I'm a white dread--I'm a white dread, so?/I'm a got a ring and I hang it from my nose/Got a little game and I take it to the park/I don't care who plays as long as the game is on."

If that's just a little tough to stomach, don't read this essay from Ritual's liner notes: "I used to wish sometimes that I was a black man. I listened to the way black men spoke when they spoke about freedom, justice and human rights. And in the way they spoke, I was sure they were speaking the truth. At the same time, there was a faint buzz spreading to all of us, the suggestion that the black man was not to be treated equally. For this I envied the black man because it gave him a passion for his living and a cause to die for."

Farrell goes on to say a similar word about his former wish to be a woman, then concludes, "I have grown to become proud of myself. I have aligned with all those who have been stung by suppression."

It's this kind of stuff that leads critics to call Farrell and his quartet "great, but full of shit" and "talented assholes."

And "full of shit" is the only thing that can be said about Farrell's decision to design a second cover that would co-exist with the Ritual's controversial original jacket when some Warner Bros. prudes said uh-uh to the first. The goody-goody version features a white background with the First Amendment printed on it. Farrell rationalizes this way in a press release: "I will never compromise, ever. I will only extend. I will only do something additional."

Still, you can't blow off Farrell for eyebrow-raising comments or being a backpedaling businessman. We need him--to make us laugh, to entertain us, spar with our consciences and, yes, even to show us his ding-a-ling once in a while.

Jane's Addiction will perform at Celebrity Theatre on Sunday, November 4. Showtime is 7:30 p.m.

Farrell will go down as rock's goofiest punk-hippie, a singer given alternately to grandiloquent philosophizing and exposing himself. The lyrics to "Three Days" sound like something Charlton Heston might've uttered in The Ten Commandments.

JA isn't one of those groups that changes the course of musical history. But it's sure nice to listen to while we wait for the next genius over the horizon.

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David Koen