Reformed after a 10-year hiatus, San Francisco's mope-rock kings have retooled for a new generation of manic-depressives. Gone are the country-punk influences that made early releases California and Engine so vital. Instead, lead moaner Mark Eitzel has brought along the song-stylist baggage that cluttered up his spotty solo efforts.
But his verbosity is now backed by a welcome power. Opener "Ladies and Gentlemen" melds a jazzy beat with some seriously raucous guitar, producing an absorbing funhouse-from-hell effect. Always a great songwriter, Eitzel is best when the words and music find equal footing. But when he wonders (and wanders), as on "Mantovani the Mind Reader," the result is pomposity with no hook within reach. Eitzel's pain is both personal and political, and in often annoying detail, he critiques the Bush administration and the Patriot Act with case studies of losers at the edges of society. The songs are unflinching and dark, prickly even in quieter moments. Eitzel and crew wallow in the paranoia and alienation of modern America, and they want you to join them. Welcome them back -- but be careful.