Ophelias PhotoThis San Francisco quartet sings/chants theatrical lyrics over colorfully dramatic rock - like Oingo Boingo but more inclined to genuine offbeatness and exciting music - on The Ophelias, an accomplished if not entirely appealing debut. "Mr. Rabbit," an old children's folk song given a charming update, is the album's high point; elsewhere, Leslie Medford (vocals, guitar, trumpet, harmonica, recorder) tries too hard to sell his songs, obscuring whatever lies beneath all the multi-tracked play-acting. And using dialogue from Hamlet is just a little pretentious, n'est-ce pas?

Besides unveiling a half-new lineup that includes guitarist David Immerglück (also of the Monks of Doom), Oriental Head displays a mildly psychedelicized rethink and a Zappaesque goof-jazz influence. Medford's still on his Shakespearean kick (the LP leads off with "Midsummernight's Scene," a number credited to Marc Bolan), but tones down the delivery to improve songs rather than suffocate them. Unpredictable, uneven and occasionally fascinating, Oriental Head is filled with ideas, some of which actually make weird sense.

Issued in a circular sleeve, The Big O - easily the Ophelias' best effort yet - irons the group's music into an effectively derivative set of '60s folk-rock/acid-garage/rock idioms. Using other songwriters besides Medford helps, as some of the record's most entertaining tunes ("Leah Hirsig," for instance) aren't his. Typical of the escapade's goodnatured foolishness are "Lawrence of Euphoria" (sung like a Bonzo Dog Band outtake), a cover of the Nervous Breakdown's crude proto-punk "I Dig Your Mind" and an inexplicable T. Rex parody, "When Winter Comes." ~ Phillip Ewing, 80s Retro Music