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The Earlies are that special kind of band whose music really can’t be described without recourse to hyphens. Lots of ’em, in fact. That may explain why the far-flung collective’s year-old debut disc, These Were the Earlies, is only just now getting a stateside release: One suspects that, given the U.S. music press’s penchant for pithy descriptors, the band’s publicist had a tough time putting into cut-and-paste bullet points just what, exactly, this bunch of wacked-out weirdoes is up to.

But what the heck—I’ll give it a shot. Comprising songs snagged from the group’s early singles and EPs, These Were the Earlies is awash in soft-focused, neo-psychedelic folk-rock; brims with orchestral, rock-opera ambition; and, aurally speaking, spans the alt-pop canon from Pet Sounds–era Beach Boys to Soft Bulletin–era Flaming Lips.

How’s that? And before you answer, consider that that’s not the half of it, either. The outfit has literary designs, to boot.

“I saw a boy’s T-shirt today,” sings ringleader Brandon Carr on the disc’s opening tune. “It said one of us is dead.” And lest you think the guy’s just being smarty-pants, college-sophomore clever, Carr delivers the line in such a fragile, brokenhearted warble that you have to believe that the other 12 members of the disc’s part-Limey, part-Texan lineup—including bass loopist Alex Berry, bassoonist Susan Goffee, and Gareth Maybury, who, among other things, is credited with euphonium and “Trombionics”—were no doubt boo-hooing in the studio control booth while Carr laced his words through the somberly tuneful music they helped create.

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As it happens, the track is called “One of Us Is Dead,” and given the album’s past-tense title, one might suppose that it’s Carr who turns out to be 6 feet under when the song’s over. Still, coming as it does at the start of the album—just after a brief introductory tribute to Brian Wilson called “In the Beginning”—it’s easy to think that maybe, just maybe, Carr & Co. mean the song as a challenge to you, Dear Listener: If you’re not up for our heady, wildly eclectic brand of sonic mischief-making, then you’re the one who’s “underground”—with, no doubt, only your vast array of postpunk, post-grunge, and postrock records for cold comfort.

By contrast, there’s not a damn thing that’s cold about the Earlies. Indeed, there’s a nonsyrupy sincerity that runs through These Were the Earlies, and despite the disc’s frequently whimsical instrumentation, there’s a palpable and seductive sense of melancholy here as well. “Wayward Song,” for instance, is basically built on a two-note clarinet riff and some gracefully plinked piano. But combined with another tearjerker of a melody and the slurred cadence of Carr’s content-to-fail words—“It’s all right/To let yourself down again tonight” is the track’s main refrain—the tune is more funereal than carnival.

That’s also true of “Slow Man’s Dream,” an ambient set piece that, over the course of four minutes and change, builds from a flute-powered potential dud to a full-blown pocket symphony, complete with chimes, strings, and plenty of reed instruments.

Elsewhere, “25 Easy Pieces” kicks off with what sounds like a gospel choir of tripping hippies intoning over piano chord changes that wouldn’t sound out of place on a Burt Bacharach ditty. True, Carr delivers his worst vocal performance of the disc on this track—his slow-motion melody-making just doesn’t work this time out—but the song is a hoot anyway. Set-closer “Dead Birds” is similarly winning, beginning as a mordant piano ballad before morphing in the middle into a frenzied, orchestral vamp that conjures the cacophony between John and Paul’s respective halves of “A Day in the Life.”

“Lows” is another keeper, a slow-simmering instrumental that vaguely echoes Chicago’s—yes, Chicago’s—“Colour My World” before rising up into the ambient-techno ether in a way that recalls German laptoppers the Notwist, not to mention Chicago’s—the city, not the band this time—very own answer to the Pet Shop Boys, pomo synth-pop duo the Aluminum Group. With this latter track and the even more hipster-friendly “Morning Wonder,” the Earlies turn a corner on These Were and head in the direction of more contemporary musical terrain. With its machine drums and insistently throbbing groove, the tune could even be a fugitive Stereolab number.

As these two tracks make clear—and as aurally outré as the band mostly is—it’s not, after all, as though the Earlies don’t have fellow travelers on the indie-rock scene. The Polyphonic Spree shares the band’s commitment to a communal, Mad Hatter–style aural aesthetic, as do sonic collagists and erstwhile hipsters du jour the Beta Band. And on a number of tracks—“Wayward Song,” for example, as well as the percussive, horn-fueled “The Devil’s Country” and the relatively straightforward pop-rocker “Bring It Back Again”—Carr’s rhythmically skewed singing bears close resemblance to the style that Doug Martsch adopted (and pretty much perfected) on Built to Spill’s 1997 masterpiece, Perfect From Now On. The timbre of Carr’s voice itself is frequently a rough match for Martsch’s, too.

The biggest contemporary influence here, however, is surely the Flaming Lips, who, while they ply their pop-art trade in a more traditional rockist mode, have clearly given Carr a model, one the guy has studied closely—perhaps while sniffing copious quantities of glue. Like Lips guru Wayne Coyne, Carr has a penchant for tunes with epic sweep and psych-rock indulgence that is tempered by a well-honed knack for pop hooks and languid, bittersweet melodies.

Still, the singer/guitarist and his large, international entourage have taken Coyne’s model apart, putting it back together in strange, lovely, and interesting ways. In the process, they’ve also used more woodwinds than your high-school band. That may make the group tough to pigeonhole, but it doesn’t make These Were the Earlies any less compelling.CP