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Rock

The Flaming Lips

The Terror

[Warner Bros.]

Rating: 4 stars

Great musicians have for years responded to the query “From whence inspiration?” with snappy comebacks that conjure images of the Muse herself visiting the musician during a dream. Paul McCartney most famously suggested that he “dreamt” the melody to “Yesterday,” and then hung on to it for a good while before sharing it, convinced that he’d lifted it from somewhere. Indeed, anyone for whom music-making is a regular part of life must acknowledge that one’s best work generally comes when one enters a sort of mildly hypnotic state, where rarefied air elevates the proceedings beyond expectation.

For the Flaming Lips, the dream state of inspiration is something the group has handily parlayed through its music over the course of some 14 full-length studio excursions. Clearly the progenitors of the modern psychedelic rock movement, the band has routinely crafted music of sublime, otherworldly, dreamy, trippy, sometimes downright transcendent allure. “The Terror,” out Tuesday, continues the band’s reign. But, despite retaining the band’s sonic inventiveness and penchant for conjuring worlds somewhere between dream and reality, this new effort marks a radical departure. In short, the album lives up to its title. “The Terror” is a song-cycle that unrelentingly details a downward spiral of existential despair. That it manages to do so without being a major bummer – indeed, without sacrificing an uplifting air – is testament to the album’s brilliance.

In the past, singer and lyricist Wayne Coyne employed existentialism as a means of celebrating freedom and the glorious potential inherent to the human condition. Songs like “Do You Realize?” and “My Cosmic Autumn Rebellion” tackled the heaviest of subjects and celebrated them as invitations for all of us to create whatever reality we see fit. The lack of inherent meaning in the universe was presented as a license for us to create our own meaning.

“The Terror” takes a different tack, to put it mildly. In terms of the text of its lyrics alone, it is a record bereft of hope. But the magic of the Lips – Coyne, multi-instrumentalist and composer Stephen Drozd, bassist/sound effects guru Michael Ivins, and drummer Kliph Scurlock – can often be pinpointed to the way the harmonic properties of the music manipulate how we hear, feel and interpret the lyrics. That’s certainly the case here.

“The Terror” is a conceptual album and as such, it is best to approach the recording as one long song with many distinct sections – a notion underscored by the fact that the band and longtime producer Dave Fridmann chose to connect each song to the next with beds of sonic tissue. Even if taken just on its surface level, “The Terror” is profound – it sounds fantastic and fantastical, music perhaps conjured in dreams and designed for the listener to dream to.

But when we add the heretofore secular humanist/existential optimist Coyne’s delineation of a cold universe stripped of faith, hope and love, we enter an elevated artistic atmosphere. This is brave, heady and defiantly beautiful music, and it deserves the attention of anyone who listens to music for more than mere unthinking entertainment.

– Jeff Miers

Pop

Paul Anka

Duets

[Sony Legacy]

Rating: One and a half stars

It was an odd accident of fate that the sad death of Annette Funicello after so many years of her suffering from multiple sclerosis reacquainted us with the ancient fact of teen romance that Paul Anka’s song “Puppy Love” was written about his relationship with Annette.

Anka’s history as the first teenager to have hit records by writing and singing songs meant to sell to other teenagers (see “Diana” which long predated Dion’s “Teenager in Love”) long since gave way to an adult history even more honorable and notable – writing “My Way” for Frank Sinatra, Johnny Carson’s theme song for his venerable version of “The Tonight Show.”

Granted, Frank Sinatra’s invention of a new kind of “Duet” disc in which the star singers never needed to be in the same room didn’t exactly augur all that well for this disc, but you’d think Anka’s time of life would spur him on to make something special out of these duets with the likes of Willie Nelson, Dolly Parton, Patti LaBelle, Celine Dion, Tom Jones, Michael McDonald, Michael Jackson, Michael Bublé, Gloria Estefan, etc.

Forget it. This is quite an awful disc. Bublé, Nelson and Jones are so irrepressible that they refuse to be caught up in the tedium of the rest on “Pennies from Heaven,” “Crazy” and “She’s a Lady,” respectively. But the rest of it is the sort of thing that even Vegas casino grandees might want to see sent back to the drawing board.

If you get your hopes up seeing Anka’s own teen-screaming power ballad “You Are My Destiny” sung with that consummate soul belter LaBelle, forget it. It turns out to be a flamenco-flavored thing so tasteful it’s pointless. Something similar happens to “It’s Hard to Say Goodbye” with that Vegas megabelter Dion, which is performed at such a civilized tempo and dynamic level that it has virtually no purpose at all.

Until Anka revives his old “duet” with Sinatra on the song he wrote for him – “My Way” there’s almost nothing on this disc that needed to be preserved.

Anka deserves a lot more paragraphs in pop music history than he usually gets. Discs like this, though, are probably why he’ll continue having trouble getting them.

– Jeff Simon

New Age

John Medeski

A Different Time: Solo Piano

[Okeh/Sony]

Rating: 2 stars

With this disc the grand and primal record label Okeh (Louis Armstrong, etc.) comes back into existence, an altogether wonderful idea in theory.

In practice, though, the keyboardist who is so popular in the trio Medeski, Martin and Wood turns into a solo pianist of little or no distinction.

It was Chick Corea, not Keith Jarrett, who ushered in an entirely new kind of solo piano jazz record on ECM. It was Jarrett’s masterpieces which transformed the place of solo piano discs throughout jazz.

Medeski describes this disc as “meditative and contemplative ... really raw and open, stripped of all hipness.” If, then, you expect anything that even vaguely resembles the kind of solo piano masterworks that have been given us in modern times by Corea, Jarrett, Paul Bley and Michel Petrucciani, you won’t find it here.

It’s background music to foreground events you’d probably rather avoid altogether.

– J.S.

Tango

The Castellani Andriaccio Duo

Anima Del Sur, Milongas and Tangos for Two Guitars

[Fleur de Son]

Rating: 3½ stars

The Castellani Andriaccio Duo, Buffalo-based husband-and-wife guitarists, should send a copy of this CD to Pope Francis. The Argentinian pontiff has said not only that he loves tangos, but he used to dance them back in the day. (Though he said he preferred to dance the milonga, an old form of the tango with a brisker rhythm.) What a perfectly timed album!

Joanne Castellani and Michael Andriaccio play both tangos and milongas by Adrien Politi, Marcelo Coronel, Jose Rafael Cisneros, Jose Luis Merlin, Ernesto Cordero, Jorge Cardoso and other names that, although you might not have heard of them, the pope probably has. The two guitarists show a tremendous range of expression as well as a synchronicity like, well, two tango dancers. One highlight is “O parque das Criancas” by Afro-Brazilian composer Celso Machado, presented to the Buffalo guitar duo after a children’s festival where they all worked together. I also loved the brooding milonga written by Alfonso Montes as a tribute to Astor Piazzolla. In Ernesto Cordero’s “Sonatina Tropical,” which evokes the heated spirit of Puerto Rico, you find yourself marveling at the duo’s fine sense of timing. They show impeccable grace and style.

– Mary Kunz Goldman