* ** 1/2 N.E.R.D., "FLY OR DIE" (VIRGIN)
Pharrel Williams was an appropriate choice for the Beatles tribute band on this year's Grammy's telecast, but producers would have been wise to also include Chad Hugo, his partner in the multi-platinum production duo the Neptunes (who've worked with everyone from Justin Timberlake and Britney Spears to Jay-Z and Kelis) instead of tired ol' Sting and Dave Matthews.

With their labor of love side project N.E.R.D., Williams and Hugo display a mastery of the recording studio that rivals that of George Martin himself, and a playful, wide-ranging love of pop hooks from all genres that recalls the wild invention and free-ranging experimentation of Lennon and McCartney circa "Rubber Soul" and "Revolver," their most creative studio efforts. Songs such as "Backseat Love" (a good-natured ode to automotive coupling), "Don't Worry About It," "Maybe" (which features guests Lenny Kravitz and ?uestlove) and "Jump" (with Good Charlotte) are good-time party jams that boast a surprising level of sonic invention, which make for listening that's as rewarding on headphones as it is on the dance floor.

Jim DeRogatis