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MUSIC REVIEWS: Maroon 5, Flaming Lips

- - Monday, June 25, 2012

Overexposed

Maroon 5

A&M

★★

Billed as Maroon 5's poppiest album to date, "Overexposed" sets its sights on the same fans who ate up "Moves Like Jagger," a chart-topping pop hit that ironed out the band's funky kinks and presented a smooth, streamlined Top 40 sound instead.

These 12 new songs follow a similar pattern, mixing dance beats and Auto-Tuned melodies into one slickly produced package. As a result, "Overexposed" is the very definition of commercial music, but it also jettisons everything that made the band unique, like a quirky high school student who stops hanging out with the drama kids and science geeks in order to be popular.

"One More Night" opens the record with a minor-key reggae groove co-written by Max Martin, the pop titan who previously wrote hits for Britney Spears, the Backstreet Boys and Kelly Clarkson. OneRepublic's Ryan Tedder lends his songwriting assistance to another track, and Benny Blanco — the guy behind Katy Perry's "California Gurls" and Ke$ha's "Tik Tok" — checks in with "Payphone." If "Overexposed" sometimes sounds like the work of a different band, it's because Maroon 5 has never relied so heavily on collaborators before.

Some things remain the same. Adam Levine's cocky swagger and high falsetto vocals are in fine form, whether he's channeling Usher during the dance-pop gem "Ladykiller" or performing the album's sole piano ballad, "Sad," like a male Adele.

It's hard to hear his bandmates' contributions, though. James Valentine's guitar takes a backseat to the buzzing synthesizers and keyboard loops that dominate most of these songs, and Matt Flynn's percussion sounds like it came from a computer program instead of a drum set. Only a handful of tracks contain bridges or solo sections, which means the guys have little to do apart from backing Mr. Levine's voice and cycling their way through choruses that are structured to sound as repetitive as possible.

It's not very rock 'n' roll, in other words. That's probably the whole point of "Overexposed," an album that purposely imitates the pop-centric sounds of 2012, but the record winds up sounding as tired as its title.

The Flaming Lips and Heady Fwends

The Flaming Lips

Warner Bros.

★★★

The Flaming Lips push the envelope with "Heady Fwends," an intensely bizarre — but often charming — duets album filled with appearances by pop starlets, indie rock frontmen and folk singers alike.

Think Ke$ha has no place on a Flaming Lips song? How about Coldplay's Chris Martin? Think again. Wayne Coyne and his group of merry pranksters may have picked an odd group of collaborators, but everyone seems more than willing to take part in the band's magical mystery tour, resulting in an album that coaxes psychedelic charm out of the most unlikely of duet partners.

"2012," an electronic rewrite of Iggy Pop's "1969" featuring Ke$ha, opens the album with a bawdy bang, and "Ashes in the Air," an atmospheric combination of computer noises, guitar chords and Bon Iver's free-floating voice, shoots the listener into outer space. Few of these tracks are traditional songs, per se, and even fewer hold up on their own. When viewed as part of a larger whole, though, they deliver a warped, head-spinning punch, making "Heady Fwends" one of the Lips' best song cycles in years.

There's another cover on the track list, and it easily steals the show. "The First Time I Ever Saw Your Face," a Grammy-winning No. 1 single for Roberta Flack in 1972, is stretched into a 10-minute epic, with Erykah Badu singing the song's familiar melodies through some sort of trippy echo filter. Blasts of electric guitar noise echo in the background, and gauzy keyboard chords drape themselves over the whole thing like silk, allowing the song's beauty to shine through cracks in the fabric.

Throw in some additional guest appearances (Yoko Ono, Jim James, Nick Cave, Edward Sharpe) and a handful of half-serious song titles ("Supermoon Made Me Want to Pee," "I'm Working at NASA on Acid"), and you've got a scattershot, oddball album that feels oddly cohesive. "The Flaming Lips and Heady Fwends" may be wacky, but like the best of the band's work, it stands up to close scrutiny, too.