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[Interscope] ****

"Guero" is sure to be received in some quarters as the album on which Beck reconciles his jokester "Odelay" persona with the more songwriter-oriented material represented by "Mutations" and "Sea Change." But that's not the half of it. On the surface, such an assessment seems reasonable enough, yes, but what makes "Guero" particulalrly noteworthy in the Beck canon is the fact that, of the collage-based works he's recorded, this is the first to be organic rather than ironically conceived.

"Odelay" is clever and inventive, but "Guero" is in a different league, its songs powerful enough to transcend their chosen medium and the tools of their implementation.

"Odelay" was a nerd's revenge, a geek's big day of studied glory, but "Guero" is a huge margarita made inside a plastic kiddie pool, gigantic crystals of salt lining the rim. The listener is urged to grab the oversized plastic straw, cast it willfully aside, and dive head-first into the thing. Mmm. Salty!

"Guero" might not be Beck's best album -- that honor is split between "Mutations" and "Sea Change" -- but it is easily the most startlingly successful appropriation and assimilation of black music by white guys since the Clash released the equally collage-like "Sandinista!" 25 years ago.

Forget the Beastie Boys. This is genre-bending of such wickedly delightful will as to suggest an apotheosis on its creator's part. There's sex and sensuality ("Que Onda Guero," "Hell Yes"), Zeppelin-meets-hip-hop ("E-Pro") and sunny power-pop ("Girl") all vying for your attention, but these are actualized songs, all, with matured melodies and no need of kitsch value to see them through. So, watcha want? This is the real deal, here. Line up.

- Jeff Miers

Charles Lloyd Quartet
Jumping the Creek
[ECM] ****

Charles Lloyd's finest disc in a decade or more. Believe me, a quick look at the players on the disc -- pianist Geri Allen, bassist Robert Hurst and drummer Eric Harland -- doesn't begin tell you quite how gorgeous and remarkably varied it is. All it indicates is a level of vaunted professionalism beneath which nothing will sink. But sometimes the gods smile with maximum luminescence on a recording date that might not necessarily seem all that prepossessing.

That's what you have here: one veteran musician who has never sounded better in his life and a well-seasoned younger pianist and bassist and a young drummer who seem to be communicating with him -- and each other -- on an otherworldly level. Lloyd's sound -- half Getz, half Coltrane -- is little less than haunting here. And when it's time to wail and swing, even get dirty and roar, he's doing that too.

The lyricism is consummate but so too is the exciting level of abstraction achieved by these players. The manner, I suppose, has been familiar since Coltrane's "A Love Supreme" but one sublimity doesn't necessarily beget another, not even three decades later. It was the late Michel Petrucciani who convinced Lloyd to come out of retirement many years ago. Petrucciani's efforts have never borne sweeter fruit.

-- Jeff Simon

Folk Song Arrangements performed by soprano Felicity Lott, tenor Philip Langridge, pianist Graham Johnson, guitarist Carlos Bonell
[Naxos] ****

This new double-disc release in Naxos' "English Song Series" features artists who are heard on the fine Hyperion song discs, this time presenting a wide range of English folk song, sensitively and wittily arranged by Benjamin Britten. Many are familiar, like "Greensleeves," "The Ash Grove" (set off by sweet dissonances) and the arch "The Foggy, Foggy Dew," which Burl Ives used to sing.

Some of the lesser-known numbers are the real gems, though, like "The Crocodile," a romping old sea chanty about a guy who gets swallowed by a croc and lives to tell the tale (an interesting mournful tone takes over when the beast dies, as if the guy inside misses his host) and "The Miller of Dee," accompanied with a very Schubertian turning of the mill wheel. Lott's sublime, effortless soprano brings out the beauty of the sweet, sad "Early One Morning," and the last song sung is a touching tribute from one composer to another: Britten's 1947 take on the beautiful German folk song "Da unten im Tale," Despite the British reverence for folk song, the performers never sound as if they're treading on eggshells, and the songs live and breathe.

Mary Kunz Goldman

Queens of the Stone Age
Lullabies to Paralyze
[Interscope] ****

Just when you think hard rock has become a dead horse only boneheads would want to continue to beat, along comes "Lullabies to Paralyze," the first Queens of the Stone Age record to see release since the departure of co-founder and bassist Nick Oliveri, and one of the most diverse, dramatic and powerful heavy efforts we've heard since Soundgarden's "Superunknown" more than 10 years ago. Essentially the brainchild, at this point, of vocalist/guitarist/twisted mastermind Josh Homme, the Queens call on a rotating cast of characters to craft a thoughtful, progressive and often frankly disturbing collection of songs and sounds running the gamut from Nick Cave-like noir (the Mark Lanegan-crooned opener "The Lullaby") to four-on-the-floor punk grit (the relentless "Everybody Knows You Are Insane") to moody, spacious and harmonically sophisticated space-rock ("I Never Came"). It all adds up to a deliciously dark ride through the mind of Homme and his pals, but more importantly, it offers proof positive of a still-present pulse in the heavy music carcass.

It's impressive, all of it, and will wipe away that old guilt long associated with indulging in heavy music. This is stuff you can, at various points, bang your head to, close your eyes and drift away into, or marvel at the seeming ease with which Homme and friends make the complex sound natural and organic. Jimmy Page once described Led Zeppelin's magic as "the ability to manipulate light and shade." If we measure "Lullabies to Paralyze" by the same criterion, it comes up straight aces.

-- Jeff Miers