Dec 16, 1998 at 12:00 am

When the Orb first emerged on the early-'90s UK rave scene, nobody was quite sure what to make of Alex Patterson and his band of merry beatpranksters. Now, as his sense of irony is finally understood for both its sincerity and subversiveness, the Orb finds itself revived in the public ear by the inclusion of its Rickie Lee Jones-sampling tune, "Little Fluffy Clouds," in Volkswagen TV commercials. It's hard not to see this best-of as just cashing in on the VW visibility; indeed, as you read this, Patterson is in the Bahamas mixing the new Orb record.

But taken for what it is, U.F. Off traces the deep threads of funk and irony that are both Patterson's strength and weakness. Strength because they made for some of early-'90s electronica's most conspicuous cleverness, and weakness because, as Spinal Tap once said, "There's a fine line between clever and stupid."

Still, it's hard not to smile when the bright falsetto cascade of "A Huge Ever Growing Pulsating Brain that Rules from the Center of the Ultraworld" fades under its twinkly, genteel sequences to reveal a new mix of "Little Fluffy Clouds." And indeed, as buoyant, poppy electronic music, the Orb as represented here was master of its domain, a kind of Pink Floyd for the '90s, doing its admittedly finite thing in a way that nobody else could, stumbling on a few classics along the way -- "Blue Room," "Perpetual Dawn," etc., all included here -- and earning a place as a footnote to music history.

There's some predictable B-side fodder -- was the seven-minute-plus "Pomme Fritz" really ever that good to begin with? -- but by the time "Towers of Dub" comes around, here presented in its gloriously wide-eyed and scattered original mix, all is forgiven. In a beat-numb culture, the Orb was -- and is -- a breath of fresh air, reminding us then not to take dance music too seriously and now to buy a new Bug.