New music by the Flaming Lips, Ghostface Killah, the Clientele, Michael Hurley and Fela Kuti.
The Flaming Lips “Embryonic” (Warner Brothers) - The Flaming Lips have always treated the studio the same way a mad scientist treats his dungeon laboratory, so it's not too surprising they've seemingly discovered the secret of time travel and surgically grafted their old noisy selves onto their new progressive pop selves. What's surprising is that the combination has yielded one of the band's best albums, a reinvigorated collection of weirdo tunes that sound both haphazardly clangorous and bizarrely spacey while it illustrates the gravitational pull between good and evil, consciousness and oblivion. Especially for a double album, it might sound a bit too ponderous, but songs such as “Convinced of the Hex” and “Watching the Planets” retain the Lips' charming pop sensibility, and “I Can Be a Frog” is a cuddly stuffed animal of a song featuring animal noises by Karen O. After the disappointing “At War with the Mystics,” it's good to hear the band toying with its sound again and discovering new forms of intelligent life. HHHHH Stephen M. Deusner
Ghostface Killah “Ghostdini, the Wizard of Poetry” (Def Jam) - There is, by now, a well-established Ghostface formula: a decent but nonintrusive beat, a crate-digging soul sample and Dennis Cole's aggressively spitting, twisty tales of street life. For more than 15 years as both a solo artist and a member of Staten Island's Wu-Tang Clan, he's become a critic's fave in those elements, but not much of a rap superstar — even though his middling, messy “Ghostdini” schools recent better-selling releases from Jay-Z and Eminem. Here the formula yields a largely predictable album as he deploys pedestrian beats, repeats choruses until they're threadbare, and examines mostly mundane matters about women, sex and empire-building. “Not Your Average Girl” is most certainly average; “Stapleton Sex” is Ghost's letter to Penthouse; “Paragraphs of Love” his Hollywood rom-com pitch. Still, for sheer visceral musical thrill, no rapper can match his sharply dexterous delivery, which illuminates tracks such as “Guest House” and “Back Like That” and makes Ghostdini more than the sum of its parts. HHHII — Stephen M. Deusner
The Clientele “Bonfires on the Heath” (Merge) - If you listen closely to the individual components in the Clientele's sound, you'd be hard-pressed to pick out why the London-based quartet's best songs linger in the memory, why this journeyman indie-rock group's pastoral pop feels genuine when other modern bands trafficking in retro tones seem so mannered. On the new “Bonfires on the Heath,” lead singer and songwriter Alasdair MacLean and his combo seem to be impervious to uneven sound balances, dull guitar tones and bloated song times. That's because they deliver on the melodies and hooks, track after track, all while managing to write words that actually reward a reading of the lyric sheet. The best song here, “Never Anyone But You,” is a brilliant slice of melancholy that's ready-made for your next romantic mix tape, and tracks such as “Harvest Time” and “Graven Wood” would not sound out of place on a midperiod Kinks compilation, high praise indeed. Even the filler on this “Bonfire” — an atmospheric sketch called, yep, “Sketch” — gives off heat. It's all outstanding stuff, even if the listener is never quite sure how the band pulls it off. HHHHI — Don Harrison
Michael Hurley “Ida Con Snock” (Gnomonsong Recordings) - Former Richmonder Michael Hurley is one of the country's living musical treasures, performing hobo folk in a neo-primitive vein with down-home charm for some 40 years. Living in Astoria, Ore., Hurley, nicknamed Snock, has been rediscovered by members of the so-called free-folk, or freak-folk clique; covered by Vetiver, Espers and Cat Power, among others, and invited to tour with Lucinda Williams and Son Volt. On his 21st album, recorded at Levon Helm's Woodstock studio, Hurley alternates on guitar, viola and droning harmonium accompanied by the softly effective Brooklyn folk rockers from Ida, who provide angelic vocal harmonies and precise instrumental backing for his salty, narrative vocals to lazily roam around. They perform polished Hurley classics such as the old-timey, violin-driven “Hog of The Forsaken” (featured in the HBO series “Deadwood”) with giddy covers of Fats Domino and the Ames Brothers tossed in. The result is one of his strongest collaborative efforts yet — dwelling in that weird twilight zone between haunting, simple melodies and playful lyrics, from songs about hooting owls and Mrs. Maple Green and her jelly creations (“It Must Be Gelatine”) to the forlorn melody of “Wildegeeses” a darkly beautiful fairy tale about honking geese stalked by a slacker wolf — a metaphor for a failed romance — that ends with Hurley emulating the birds in eerie yodels and whistles. A perfectly mellowed folk album for a cool fall evening and yet another good reason to invite Hurley, who is almost 70, to next year's Richmond Folk Festival. HHHHI — Brent Baldwin
DVD/CD: Fela Kuti, “The Best of the Black President” (Knitting Factory Records) - Fans of the legendary Fela Kuti, the father of Afrobeat music, have a lot to celebrate lately. To mark the upcoming Broadway musical, “Fela,” the story of the Nigerian saxophonist's troubled life that opens on Broadway on Nov. 23, Knitting Factory is releasing all 45 original Fela albums during the next 18 months, remastered on CD and available on vinyl. The inaugural release is this “best of” collection, whose digital version includes two discs of 13 classic Fela tracks — compiled by his musician son, Femi — which chart Fela's evolution from the psychedelic '60s through the harder funk-charging decades to follow. There's also a throw-in DVD featuring segments from the film “Music Is the Weapon,” abbreviated performances from the Berlin Jazz Festival, Glastonbury Festival, and largely promotional interviews with “Fela” musical chorographer and director Bill T. Jones and biographer Carlos Moore. For the unfamiliar, this is marathon dance stuff: hypnotic music built around traditional African rhythms and dense percussion, taut James Brown funk lines and wild blasts of big band jazz, while the call-and-response lyrics present a confrontational rallying cry (and increasingly sarcastic condemnation) aimed at neocolonialism and political corruption. If you ever needed a beginner's introduction, this is it: The music never sounded better and the DVD makes a scattered but convincing case for Fela's legacy as a mesmerizing and demanding performer, as well as a courageous voice for the African diaspora and its rich musical heritage. HHHII - Brent Baldwin