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In the red corner, you've got your mainstream hip-hop, your flag-waving singer-songwriters and Today's Hot Country. They're all dancing around and hollering, trying to get your attention so they can hit you over the head. In the blue corner, you've got Doleful Lions, backs to the audience, Miles Davis-like. They're whispering just loud enough to make you curious, and when you get close enough to see what they're saying, they pop you right in the kisser.

The Chapel Hill combo is so willfully obtuse, so utterly inscrutable that you can barely read the song titles on the back of their record. Careful inspection reveals names like "Gimghoul Numerologist," "Charles Starkweather vs. Sasquatch" and "Spacecraft Marooned in the Gorillaworld."

Of course, pop music was built on the whole hitting-you-over-the-head thing, so it's endlessly fascinating when someone dares to fly in the face of all that obviousness. Musically, Doleful Lions are pure pop. There are pretty vocal harmonies and peppy drum programs and strummed acoustic guitars. There's an American boy--lead Lion Jonathan Scott--singing in a vaguely British accent. But just when you're starting to get the picture, you come to the band's faithful cover of "We Three Kings of Orient Are." Hmm ...

The only drawback to the hide-and-seek approach is the record's crude sound quality--four-track with a mic and a drum machine across the room--that sometimes cloaks the actual substance of the songs. Still, the best material (e.g., "Now You're A Witch!" and "Sparks Fly For Magnemite") transcends the lo-fi blur.

Whether or not there's a "Volume Two" on the way, Scott's Stephin Merritt-like output is impressive and his songs are criminally well-written. But you get the feeling, even after he releases his triple-CD epic "69 Cyclops Songs," you'll still be left scratching your head, looking for clues.

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