THE POP-MUSIC assembly line encourages eccentricity about as much as Parris Island cultivates independent thinking. Still, strange things can happen, usually in the underground economy created and sustained by punk and its successors. Strange, as this crop of recent releases suggests, is not necessarily a synonym for good, but it's frequently preferable to the predictably bland mainstream pop industry.
Dead Milkmen "Metaphysical Graffiti" (Enigma). The only thing that's constant in life is change -- except, that is, for the Milkmen, a foursome of Philadelphia brats permanently suspended in an alternate universe where junior-high class clowns never age. As with the band's previous efforts, rock itself is a major "Graffiti" target: The ex-Yes-men get skewered in one tune, another rewrites the classic Doors' lines as "You know I would be a liar/If I said I didn't set your Dad on fire," and a third alleges to be "In Praise of Sha Na Na." But Milkmen albums usually turn on the existence of a single standout tune -- "Bitchin' Camaro," for example, or "Punk Rock Girl" -- and this outing doesn't seem to have one.
Dread Zeppelin "Un-led-Ed" (I.R.S.). So there's this band that plays nothing -- heh heh -- but Led Zeppelin covers, but it plays them -- ha! -- reggae style and is fronted by -- haw haw haw! -- an Elvis impersonator called Tortelvis. Get the joke? In fact, describing the group constitutes the entire gag: There's no need to play this album at all, and it's difficult to imagine anyone playing it more than once, except perhaps in a party setting. No doubt the band, which performs at the 9:30 club Wednesday and Thursday, is funnier onstage; live or Memorex, though, this seems like a concept that would depreciate mighty fast.
Sonic Youth "Goo" (DGC). This post-"no wave" quartet from New York, making its major-label debut after years deep in the indie underground, is better known for offbeat tunings than odd notions, but this album has plenty of both.
Perhaps the oddest is "Tunic (Song for Karen)," in which bassist/singer Kim Gordon sets a place in rock 'n' roll heaven for anorexic drummer Karen Carpenter. It's Gordon who also has some fun with Public Enemy's Chuck D., reducing old sobersides to chanting meaningless buzzwords as she sidles up to him and asks, "Are you going to liberate us girls from male white corporate oppression?"
Elsewhere, the album continues exploring the demented guitar noise that is the band's signature, whether rampaging through a whole Glenn Branca-like electric-guitar symphony in one minute on "Scooter and Jinx" or flailing through the skittering eight-minute "Mote."
Soul Asylum "Soul Asylum" (A&M). Though these inmates have a taste for left-field covers, they don't pursue smart-aleck eccentricity in their own material. On their fourth album, the band that was once deeply indebted to Husker Du sidles up to the Replacements, another raw-pop band of fellow Minneapolitans, especially on the opening "Spinnin'." The Soul Asylum sound has yet to click into sharp focus, but this collection of tuneful but definitely hard rock (seasoned with a little bit o' soul) is the quartet's most consistent yet.
Too Much Joy "Son of Sam I Am" (Giant/Warner Bros). The Replacements' rough melodicism also occasionally echoes in Too Much Joy's music, but this quartet is much more arch than Soul Asylum. Among this album's dubious pleasures is a cover of the Rod McKuen/Jacques Brel weepie, "Seasons in the Sun," and wise-guy originals about homelessness ("Making Funs of Bums"), S&M ("Bad Dog"), "Hugo!" (that's Gang of Four drummer Hugo Burnham) and "My Past Lives" ("This life's not the best life, but at least I'm not you"). The bouncy "If I Were a Mekon" is the album's most engaging track, but the Joy boys go too far, suggesting "maybe I could sleep with Sally" (Sally Timms, the Mekons singer and wife of guitarist Jon Langford). Watch your step, guys.