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*** 1/2 FOREST FOR THE TREES, "Forest for the Trees," DreamWorks

September 07, 1997|Richard Cromelin

This album doesn't exactly strike while the "Loser" iron is hot, coming some four years after the Beck breakthrough that Forest for the Trees group leader Carl Stephenson produced in his living room. Put on the shelf while Stephenson was sidelined with mental illness, the self-titled collection has some of the ramshackle charm of that hit, and the opening cut, "Dream," even replays "Loser's" folky hip-hop card.

From there, though, it's anything goes, as "Forest for the Trees" spreads in all sonic directions. Disregarding conventions and employing unlikely juxtapositions (sitar and bagpipes is a favorite), Stephenson repeatedly discovers unique and memorable vistas. A seemingly endless stream of sounds and styles flows into his music, from India-via-Beatles to West Coast break beat. It's supplemented by mechanical and natural sounds, and by voices that periodically wander in and comment on the proceedings.

The album is informed by a childlike sense of wonder and a spiritual seeker's urgency, but there's more magic in the music itself than in some of the lyrics, which tend to labor over metaphysical puzzles. The moments of sublime silliness and pure tonal bliss do a lot more to achieve the transcendence that seems to be its goal.

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Albums are rated on a scale of one star (poor), two stars (fair), three stars (good) and four stars (excellent).

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* Excerpts from these albums and other recent releases are available on The Times' World Wide Web site. Point your browser to: http://www.latimes.com/soundclips

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