On their first two major-label albums, the members of Mr. Bungle hid behind such stage names as I Quit and Uncooked Meat. On their latest disc, "California," they drop the disguise to admit what everyone already knew -- Mr. Bungle is led by Faith No More vocalist Mike Patton and includes the members of his first high school band in Eureka, Calif. In dropping the name game, the quintet signals a new willingness to subordinate its gimmicks to its songwriting, which is more artful and satisfying than ever before.
There's still plenty of humor on the album, as one might expect from songs entitled "None of Them Knew They Were Robots" or "Goodbye Sober Day," but no longer do the verbal and musical jokes dominate. Nor does the band's flashy jazz-rock playing overwhelm the arrangements, as it once did. Instead, the 10 tunes all boast genuine pop hooks that often blossom into lush vocal harmonies reminiscent of the "Smiley Smile" Beach Boys. Patton's Hawaiian-flavored "Sweet Charity" and Trevor Dunn's dizzying ballad, "Retrovertigo," both nod in Brian Wilson's direction.
Extra horns, strings and keys are piled on some numbers to reinforce the harmonic reverie of the songs. Mr. Bungle is still capable of off-the-wall sci-fi lyrics, tongue-in-cheek parody and sudden shifts from gypsy music to heavy metal to surf guitar (as on "Ars Moriendi"), but they're at their best when they aim instead at the elegant, XTC-songcraft of "Pink Cigarette" and "The Holy Filament." Then Mr. Bungle seems more like the main event, and Faith No More seems more like the side project.
Appearing Friday at the 9:30 club with Dillinger Escape Plan. To hear a free Sound Bite from Mr. Bungle, call Post-Haste at 202/334-9000 and press 8101. (Prince William residents, call 690-4110.)