The entire stages theory made perfect sense until Athens, Ga.'s Of Montreal loused everything up. The boys went and put out an album of love songs, the bulk of which reside on an invisible edge between Stages 1 and 2.

Their record, The Bedside Drama: A Petite Tragedy, is a concept album, following one couple as they meet, fall in love, and slowly grow apart. The story unfolds in two acts, each eight songs long. Imagine the Beach Boys writing a psychedelic musical, and you'll have a good idea of the record's sound: lushly recorded garage pop -- heavy on the vocal harmonies, guitar, piano, bells, and whistles -- equally nimble in its evocation of love and sadness.

The curtain opens on Track 1, "One of a Very Few of a Kind," where the protagonist offers his admiring but realistic assessment of a new friend. Cautious optimism, though, soon spills into Stage 1 idolatry. By Track 4 the beloved has become "a little viola hidden in the orchestra," and the protagonist, accompanied by a chorus of singing seashells, decides that to win her heart he must hide his fears and reservations.

His plan succeeds, and one song later it's "The Couple's First Kiss," an instrumental reverie of distant bells and calliope. The dreaminess of it all, however, is undercut by the tiny occasional pulse of an alarm clock buried deep within the mix. It's a subtle sign of things to come; over the next 10 songs a growing ambivalence eventually sends the new love into Stage 2. By Track 16 ("It's easy to sleep when you're dead"), their love has petered out entirely.

The tale may not be an original one, but Of Montreal's telling is transcendent. Simultaneously playful and penetrating, the band uses a host of intrasong devices -- like a 15-second drama within "Little Viola" -- to bring listeners more fully into the story. That a pop band could so creatively and accurately convey the tiny changes in perception that either doom or strengthen a relationship is remarkable.

The most amazing thing about the album, though, is the way it so presciently nails a stage of relationships usually too intricate to be touched by pop songs: The space where bliss begins its imperceptible journey toward dissolution.

-- Chris Baty

Tommy Flanagan
Sunset and the Mockingbird:
The Birthday Concert
(Blue Note)

Tommy Flanagan is the premier bebop pianist of our time. He begins Sunset and the Mockingbird, a live date recorded at the Village Vanguard on his 67th birthday, with an introduction stolen from Miles Davis and then continues with Thad Jones' tribute to Charlie Parker, "Birdsong." If he wasn't so unpretentious -- modest to a fault -- you might think Flanagan was stressing his connection to Parker, the source of bebop, and to his own rightful place in its tradition.

Flanagan began his musical life listening to '30s jazz, including stride pianist Fats Waller. But he came of age after the war, and he was influenced by Nat Cole's gently sophisticated piano style, so suave it never seemed as forward-looking as it was. Flanagan heard Bud Powell with the Cootie Williams big band and was impressed by Powell's force, as well as his way of extending chords and phrasing. Flanagan became entranced with bebop, and he ended up adapting something of Cole's touch to Powell's more radical harmonics and note choice. He played with Coleman Hawkins, but he was of a younger generation, and he also found himself recording with Davis and Wes Montgomery. He recorded Giant Steps with Coltrane. Flanagan proved that he could play modally, but he seemed to think chords.

He's been with a trio ever since leaving Ella Fitzgerald at the end of the '70s. Flanagan has recorded many of the tunes on this new disc before, including "The Balanced Scales," "The Cupbearers," and "With Malice Toward None," by Tom McIntosh, a composer he's supported for years. He plays some Dizzy Gillespie, and a lesser-known Ellington tune from The Queen's Suite, "Sunset and the Mockingbird."

To my mind, the set takes off on its third number, Jones' "Let's," a funny, jumping bebop number with several stop-time sections that Flanagan plays over the alertly chattering drumming of Lewis Nash. Flanagan simply erupts from this theme statement, generating chorus after chorus of melodically interesting, hard-swinging bop, playing wild single-note runs over a spare accompaniment, punching two-handed chords, and flinging climactic riffs to bring on Peter Washington's bass solo. Here too Flanagan reveals his unassuming tact, with unobtrusive lines and delicate chords that manage to orient the bass player without removing the spotlight from where it belongs. His second piano solo on the tune is equally fiery, but it doesn't prevent Flanagan from immediately entering into the mood of the following ballad, "I Waited for You." Suddenly, he's a ruminative player as he gently limns out an introduction, whose graceful lines seem to wander casually to just the right spot. It feels like chance -- it might even sound like you could do it at home -- but it's the work of a gentle giant.

-- Michael Ullman

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