THE USED

"In Love and Death"

Reprise

HEAD AUTOMATICA

"Decadence"

Warner Bros.

"I'm telling you I'm a fake," howls singer-keyboardist Bert McCracken on the Used's second album, "In Love and Death." Some of the Utah screamo quartet's former fans agree; the band has been assailed for selling out with this disc, which includes numerous arena-rock moments, as well as a few other punk taboos: The aggression-free "Yesterday's Feelings" sounds like the Used's bid to compose a high school prom standard, while the jaunty, string-garnished "Lunacy Fringe" suggests the band has been listening to Belle and Sebastian.

Such moments are indeed incongruous, yet McCracken and his cohorts seem less phony than simply confused. These songs boast catchy melodies that suggest U2, Bon Jovi and even Joe Jackson, but the tunes are usually countered by metallic guitar and guttural bellows. The four musicians, all lapsed Mormons, wrestle with childhood beliefs in such songs as "Light With a Sharpened Edge," in which McCracken proclaims that he's "free from the torment of sin." Maybe so, but this gifted band is still struggling to find its proper place, both musically and philosophically.

"Decadence," the debut album from Head Automatica, opens with "At the Speed of a Yellow Bullet," a '70s-style hard rocker. It's not until the samples that introduce the second song that the group begins to reveal its actual agenda. Head Automatica is a collaboration between Daryl Palumbo, singer for New York hardcore-punk band Glassjaw, and Dan "the Automator" Nakamura, an eclectic art-hopper. The combination yields upbeat, surprisingly pop-oriented material in the tradition of such style-conscious dance-rockers as David Bowie and Duran Duran. "Disco Hades II" even calls someone a "suffragette," a term disinterred by Bowie in his Ziggy Stardust period.

Nakamura was a key figure in Gorillaz, the intermittently amusing dub-hop collective, and Head Automatica can sound similarly flimsy. Still, the album's beats rarely stall, and the melodies are surprisingly consistent.

Reinventing mid-'80s dance-oriented rock is hardly an essential undertaking, but such playful Head Automatica confections as "The Razor" and "Beating Heart Baby" make Disco Hades sound like a little bit of pre-fab heaven.

-- Mark Jenkins

Appearing Wednesday at the 9:30 Club with the Bled, the Bronx and No Warning. * To hear a free Sound Bite from the Used, call Post-Haste at 301-313-2200 and press 8129; to hear Head Automatica, press 8130. (Prince William residents, call 703-690-4110.)