Son Of Mr. Roboto

There are so many reasons to hate this thing.

It opens with a nine-minute song. It's a concept album. Worse still, it's a science fiction concept album. With songs about robots. Whose characters are named things like 2000 Man and Jeddy 3 (the latter of which could well be a pun on Rush's Geddy Lee; another reason!).

But here's the thing: Every time I listen to it, I don't hate it.

That's because there also are some reasons to not hate it: nifty titles like "Broken Household Appliance National Forest" (RealAudio excerpt) and "E. Knievel Interlude," the latter of which sports the snappier-still subtitle, "The Perils of Keeping It Real." Plus the disc is riddled with decent melodies, and occasionally the band even pulls out some Kamikaze guitar dive-bombing, as on "Hewlett's Daughter."

For awhile, then, I've been trying to reconcile how I feel about the The Sophtware Slump, this second album from singer/guitarist/songwriter Jason Lytle and the rest of his Modesto, Calif., crew. The combination of prog-rock ambition, scrappy sounds and the odd hip reference almost make it feel like Pink Floyd growing up and making a disc in the post-Beck era. (Do people say that about frequent Grandaddy comparison Radiohead?)

The primary stumbler here is that the band does nothing to draw us into their characters — one hell of a pothole for a concept album. From "He's Simple, He's Dumb, He's the Pilot" (RealAudio excerpt), we know that 2000 Man is lost. But we don't really know why or where he wants to go. Or who the "they" that supposedly want him to "give in" are. Maybe that's the point: Maybe he's so adrift that he doesn't know, either. But, as I don't know, either, and as he's just a shell anyway, I kind of don't really care.

Ditto for "Jed the Humanoid" (RealAudio excerpt), a walking, talking robot who drinks himself to death after his creators abandon him. Now that's an intriguing scenario. But we're supposed to buy into the idea that Jed is something special from this rote description: "Jed could run or walk, sing or talk and/ Compile thoughts and/ Solve lots of problems/ We learned so much from him." It makes you want to say "prove it." Gimme details, gimme actual emotion. Show, don't tell, as they say in the journalism biz.

A lot more interesting than these figures is Lytle himself, and the juxtapositions he's creating between the natural and synthetic worlds. That's the reason this album works when and where it does. Lytle is trying to reconcile things here, too. All the humanity that's missing from his characters is front and center in his fragile voice. For every computer blip or synth wash there's a warm snare drum or a piano. In concert, Lytle weaves tree sprigs into his guitar strings. If someone made a wooden computer, he'd be first in line to buy it.

Maybe Lytle himself is the 2000 Man, able to recognize the promise and pitfalls of technology. That's a compelling story. If only he'd told it better.