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Flaming Lips 

Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots (Warner Bros.)

The Oklahoma trio's second disc since reimagining itself on 1997's Zaireeka, Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots is casually electronic and curiously acoustic, sounds from either end of the musical spectrum crashing in the middle and collapsing into smiling, sad piles of overcast optimism and, as leader Wayne Coyne puts it, "sunshine funerals." If it's not quite as good as 1999's The Soft Bulletin, well, it's only because the band (Coyne, Steven Drozd and Michael Ivins) probably raised the bar a little out of reach. So Yoshimi shivers in the shadow a bit, but just a little, avoiding further comparison to The Soft Bulletin by inverting the formula: Bulletin was a sad record with an uncomfortable grin on its face; Yoshimi, on the other hand, is a hopeful laugh hidden behind a tear-stained handkerchief. For example, a song about death is called "It's Summertime."

A sequel in spirit and timing only (think of it as a Steven Soderbergh film: markedly different from the last but filtered through the same set of eyes), Yoshimi looks like a concept album on the outside, but other than a trilogy of songs -- "One More Robot/Sympathy 3000-21" and "Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots" parts 1 and 2 -- that's just an easy answer for a record that asks more questions than that ("Are You a Hypnotist?" and "Do You Realize?" among them).

Note to Radiohead: This is how you grow as a band without growing apart from what made you interesting in the first place, how you challenge yourself and your audience without turning it into a long-winded word problem no one has the time or patience to solve. Another soft bullet that hits harder than you'd expect.

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