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By Michael Henningsen

APRIL 5, 1999: 

Baby Lemonade Exploring Music (Big Deal)

Though named after a post-Pink Floyd Syd Barrett tune, Los Angeles' Baby Lemonade owe little but their name to Barrett's brand of cracked pastoral whimsy. Singer/guitarist Rusty Squeezebox (yeah, I know, but what can you do?) instead favors a punchier mix of '60s archetypes from Arthur Lee to Sell Out-era Who. Less reverently backwards-looking than The Apples in Stereo and less snotty than Redd Kross (though not dissimilar to either), Baby Lemonade wear their influences on their collective sleeve but are never content to merely ape their heroes.

Expertly produced by Darian Sahanaja and Nick Walusko (both of L.A.'s delightful Wondermints), Exploring Music sounds as lush as Rubber Soul-era Beatles, the songs built on layers of acoustic and electric guitars occasionally parting for economical solos (like on the simply gorgeous "Summer Song"), accented by tastefully deployed keyboards and subtle but imaginative percussion, overlaid with complex, airy harmonies. Some bands working in this style think these sounds are an end in themselves, but Rusty and bassist Mike Randle put them in service to exceptional songwriting. None of these 12 tracks is less than very good, and a handful ("Long Train Rides," the wry "Underground DJ," "Clap Your Hands") are genuinely excellent. Alongside the Wondermints, The Negro Problem and the Jupiter Affect, Baby Lemonade are the best of what the Los Angeles pop scene has to offer, and like those bands, they deserve far more than local renown. ¡¡¡¡

Fleming and John The Way We Are (Universal)

Nashville-based duo Fleming McWilliams (vocals) and John Mark Painter (everything else) can't seem to make up their minds. Are they Alanis-style alt-rockers ("I'm So Small")? Dramatic balladeers (the lovely acoustic-guitars-and-strings "Don't Let It Fade Away")? Kitschy retroists ("Radiate")? Quirky popsters (the slinky-to-screechy-and-back title track)? Slaves to the rhythm (the discofied "Sadder Day")?

The answer, of course, is all of the above and more. The couple's second album (coming after 1995's Delusions of Grandeur and last year's Fear of Pop, Vol. 1 by their pal Ben Folds, which both partners collaborated on) skips from genre to genre, held together only by their obvious pop smarts and devotion to this kind of variety. John's varied and skillful arrangements and production, coupled with Fleming's somewhat skewed world view (the album's best and catchiest track is about the shame of being dumped for an "Ugly Girl"), keep the album from sounding too scattershot. However, at nearly an hour, a few songs could have been cut (or in the case of the meandering "Rain All Day," shortened) without damage. And truth be told, Fleming is often a horribly mannered, obnoxious singer. Regardless, The Way We Are has an admirable try-anything-once spirit sadly lacking in an increasingly by-the-numbers pop scene. ¡¡¡

Phantom Planet Phantom Planet Is Missing (Geffen)

Ironically, it's difficult these days for pop, that most accessible of genres, to get anything resembling a mainstream audience, unless you're, say, Semisonic or Fastball, two bands boring and derivative enough to be embraced by those who actually feel The EDGE is a moderately interesting radio station. This lack of exposure is particularly frustrating when it happens to bands like Phantom Planet. Named after a 1961 drive-in classic, this L.A. quintet's debut is commercial enough to be echoing out of radios worldwide and substantial enough to intrigue those who want more than a catchy but forgettable chorus.

The songs are hook-laden guitar pop somewhere between early Cheap Trick and late Posies, accented by intriguing sounds and textures, courtesy of a Chamberlain (the early-'60s precursor of the Mellotron) played by Michael Penn collaborator Patrick Warren. Singer Alex Greenwald has a somewhat depressive, often angry point of view that combines intriguingly with the relatively upbeat melodies, especially on the opening "I Was Better Off" and the outstanding "Recently Distressed." Sadly, Phantom Planet will most likely never get the wide exposure they deserve, since this album was released just weeks before Geffen Records was shuttered as part of the Universal/Polygram merger. Grab it before it slips through the cracks. ¡¡¡¡

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