The Flaming Lips are an Oklahoman trio who've been around since the mid-80s and are distantly related to the mighty Mercury Rev (Rev guitarist Jonathan Donohue was a Flaming Lip for a while at the beginning of the decade, and former Mercury Rev member Dave Fridmann - fast becoming this year's Nigel Godrich following his recent work on "Deserter's Songs" and Mogwai's "Come On Die Young" - handles a percentage of the production chores here). Their last recorded work was the quadruple CD set "Zaireeka", intended to be listened to on four CD players simultaneously... You may not have heard of them before: if there's any justice in the rock world (and how many times have one or other of us used a phrase like that in a review?) you'll be unable to escape them during the remainder of 1999, because "The Soft Bulletin" is an incredible, moving and frequently astounding piece of work.
What The Flaming Lips do is weave mellotron-heavy, heavenly melodies around bizarre sci-fi lyrics (some tracks carry 'explanatory' notes in the booklet, such as "An untested hypothesis suggesting that the chemical (in our brains) by which we are able to experience the sensation of being in love is the same chemical that caused the "Big Bang" that was the birth of the accelerating universe") and then fling them off into previously uncharted regions of new psychedelia or send them skirting lightly around the borders of prog. Imagine if Mercury Rev had attempted to make "Deserter's Songs" five years ago, when they were a glorious but sometimes terminally ramshackle amalgam of Pink Floyd and Pavement, and that's probably as close to a comparison as words can take you.
Not that there's anything ramshackle about "The Soft Bulletin", especially when it kicks off with "Race For The Prize", surely one of the finest songs of the decade. A tale of two scientists battling to discover a cure for an unnamed disease, it's made almost unbearably poignant by the Lips' irrepressible upward trajectory - this is pure adrenaline distilled into musical notation - and the chorus line "They're just humans with wives and children"...a magical four minutes.
Most bands would have exhausted their imaginations by this point, but the fact that the remains of "The Soft Bulletin" don't strike as a massive anticlimax following that phenomenal opener is fairly convincing proof of The Flaming Lips' greatness. Songs such as "Slow Motion" and "Feeling Yourself Disintegrate" have an almost nursery-rhyme-like simplicity to them, despite floating along on lush clouds of keyboards and percussion, whilst the gargantuan "The Gash" rolls in on huge choral and string arrangements like a refugee from a long-forgotten rock opera.
The sole caveat I have with "The Soft Bulletin" is the presence towards the end of two remixes ("Race For The Prize" and "Waitin' For A Superman") that are all but indistinguishable from the original versions presented earlier. Oh, that and the fact that it's not (yet, at least) available on vinyl, but even then I feel I should point out that this is the first CD I've bought that uses the HDCD encoding system, giving the potential for better-than-standard-CD quality for anyone lucky enough to own a HDCD player or DAC.
Enough of these acronyms. This year's buzz in the music press has been the continual search for an album happy to wear the illustrious tag of 'this year's "Deserter's Songs"'. Some commentators (misguidedly, in my humble opinion) have attempted to place in on the new Wilco long player, but for me "The Soft Bulletin" wins the prize. It's the one album I've heard so far this year that sounds as if it'll still be coveted in a few decades time - even more than the Mogwai album raved about below - and if you're disheartened by the crushing conformity of much of modern rock now might be the ideal time to sample a little of The Flaming Lips' deliciously skewed alternate worldview.
THE FLAMING LIPS Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots (Warner Bros.)
Their first new material since the fantastical "The Soft Bulletin", simply one of the best albums ever made by anyone anywhere, the weight of expectation hanging from "Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots" is practically of albatross proportions. It's also, partially at least, a concept album - the first four tracks, at least, forming a kind of playlette whose plot is probably most adequately and concisely summed up by the title.
"Fight Test" opens proceedings, and yes, it's remarkably close to Cat Stevens' "Father And Son" in melody (so close, in fact, that you have to wonder whether it'll all end in tears and legal proceedings Yoshimi battles Yusef Islam, anyone?), and that's not a bad thing. The fact that "One More Robot/Sympathy 3000-21", with its theme of machinery learning to feel emotions, draws closer comparison with the work of Spielberg or Kubrick than that any band or musician I can think of is testament to the Lips' cinematic ambition. The music is terrific too, of course, right at the cutting edge of bubblegum alt.country psychedelic nursery rhyme electronica. "Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots Pt.1" is an intricately detailed movie pitch set to music, boasting a singalong-friendly chorus, whilst "Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots Pt.2" is the titular David and Goliath gladiatorial combat, dramatised with crazed drum patterns and piercing screams courtesy of Boredoms drummer Yoshimi P-we.
When the smoke clears we're in a different place entirely, an elegantly upholstered lucid dream afterlife through which Wayne Coyne's little-Neil-Young-lost vocals float and flutter, fumbling gently around the meaning of vital but elusive concepts like love, hate and time. Threaded through the gently illuminated murk are synthesised clarinets describing huge, romantic arcs unheard since Prefab Sprout's not-dissimilarly-themed "Andromeda Heights". All of which is lovely, of course, but for a few tracks it seems as if "Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots" is content to drift delicately on the prevailing thermals, an accusation that seems thoroughly misplaced when aimed at a Flaming Lips album, but there it is.
And then "Do You Realize??" chimes in, all Phil Spector orchestras playing soundtracks of the mind, a huge, weeping cathedral of sound, and crouched at the centre of it is Wayne Coyne, taking the most obvious of Hallmark sentiments and folding them inside out to create perfect nuggets of humble wisdom. It's such a fantastic trick that it almost works again, to only marginally diminished effect, on "All We Have Is Now". All that's left is the lush, gentle instrumental "Approaching Pavonis Mons By Balloon (Utopia Planitia)", which ends so abruptly the listener feels thrown back to earth with a bump, ejected from the fairytale fairground.
Where "The Soft Bulletin" immediately smacked the listener about the ears with its all-conquering brilliance, "Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots" is a subtler, gentler, pastel-hued thing. (The robots are pink, remember!) It improves with every play, and although I can't see it ever toppling its illustrious predecessor with its range and ambition it comfortably eclipses just about every other album released this year and next year and every year until The Flaming Lips and genius producer David Fridmann team up to frighten and charm us into submission all over again. In the meantime, The Flaming Lips are producing popular music that pushes the boundaries of the form, whilst also, according to my spies, getting it played on Radio 2.
THE FLAMING LIPS The Day They Shot A Hole In The Jesus Egg 1989-1991 (Restless)
" The Day They Shot A Hole In The Jesus Egg 1989-1991" is the second in a two volume anthology of The Flaming Lips' pre-Warners output, a double CD containing the "In A Priest Driven Ambulance" album, "The Mushroom Tapes", a former bootleg containing rough demos for same and a raft of further bonus material. Being the first Flaming Lips album to feature future Mercury Rev members Jonathan Donahue and Dave Fridmann, "In A Priest Driven Ambulance" is widely regarded as the earliest of their works to be reasonably accessible to the modern ear, as well as being almost an unintentional dry run for the Rev's magnificent debut, "Yerself Is Steam". And it's recognisably the product of the same band that gave the world the sublime "The Soft Bulletin", although much rougher and rawer.
Opener "Shine On Sweet Jesus" is the sound of a fairground apocalypse, spiced with a rather obvious steal from "Do They Know It's Christmas?" (Stealing from charity? How could they?!) Bu it's not an unfriendly noise, although Wayne Coyne's voice seems to frequently stop just shy of the note the melody might be expecting. "Five Stop Mother Superior Rain" is the highlight of this set, a song almost strong enough to withstand being presented in three different versions over the course of this collection, a big, bold anthem that provides the anthology's title and also exerts an obvious influence on Mercury Rev's "Chasing A Bee". "Stand In Line" pits Coyne's wavering vocals against samples of classical music, whilst "God Walks Among Us Now" mines a simple but effective seam of happy, fuzzy, crushing pop music. "There You Are" was recorded after midnight in the parking lot of a grocery store bordering Interstate 90, a la Doves' "M62 Song", with trucks thundering past and crickets joining in, the same session also yielding an alternate version of "Stand In Line", both charming audio verite documents. "Mountain Side" almost rates as conventional rock music, albeit conventional rock music refracted through the Lips' frazzled soundworld, full of bizarre lyrics such as "I'm holding your electric toaster whilst standing in your bathtub of love". The album proper closes with a version of Louis Armstrong's "(What A) Wonderful World", which might have been intended sarcastically at the time but which, in the light of the band's recent activity, appears more sincere with every addition to their catalogue.
"The Mushroom Tapes" bootleg consists of very, very rough four-track demos of "In A Priest Driven Ambulance" material - one track is entitled "Agonizing", not inappropriately - but the core of the songs are already in place, and it's just the presentation that needs refining. The most startling differences are apparent on "Stand In Line", which hasn't yet grown lyrics and is performed electrically, without the distractions of rumbling trucks or cricket choruses. The most interesting of the bonus tracks is "She's Gone Mad", a nine minute cover of The Chainsaw Kittens' song that begins with Wayne performing Pink Floyd's "Brain Damage" in the background, which gradually morphs into the main feature rather like the Floyd's "Wish You Were Here".
"The Day They Shot A Hole In The Jesus Egg 1989-1991" is an interesting archaeological trawl, demonstrating that The Lips' wide-eyed sci-fi lullaby template has been securely in place for a long time, but also suggesting that the even earlier work anthologised on the triple CD "Finally The Punk Rockers Are Taking Acid 1983-1988" might be a bridge too far for all but the most dedicated space cadet.
THE FLAMING LIPS At War With The Mystics (Warner Bros.)
Following The Soft Bulletin and Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots, two albums of the most coruscatingly beautiful Cosmic American Music Ive ever had the pleasure of treating my ears to, At War With The Mystics is a resounding, flat-falling thud. At first I thought the lousy sonics that so diminished my expected enjoyment were a product of the long-delayed and not inexpensive coloured vinyl pressing (one disc orange, the other turquoise), but as the CD sounds similarly muggy I can only presume that producer Dave Fridmann had exhausted his usual supplies of sparkliness for the dragging 18 month duration of the sessions. Its the songs, I think, that are at the heart of At War With The Mystics malaise, which, unlike practically everything on the aforementioned two albums, are emphatically not among The Flaming Lips best, being overly goofy (The Yeah Yeah Yeah Song) or bitterly accusatory (Free Radicals, Havent Got A Clue); that and an acid tang of attitude from Mr Coyne that I dont clearly recollect from previous outings.
Flash, whimsy and fingerpointing appear to have overwhelmed the honest-to-goodness wild-eyed wonder Ive come to rely upon from this band. My Cosmic Autumn Rebellion is hardly a match for the glowing sundown positivity of Do You Realize??, for example, and Vein Of Stars is almost hackneyed in its minor key wistfulness. The Wizard Turns On has momentous designs, but its plodding, Sabbath-ian determination is more stagger than swagger. It Overtakes Me has all the enforced jollity of a campfire singalong, Wayne at his vaguest remaining naggingly non-specific about exactly what is overtaking him. Possibly the finest four minutes gathered here, Mr. Ambulance Driver is a breezy pop song about a life on the cusp of being extinguished, yet even this is low octane measured against full-throttle oldies such as Race For The Prize; somewhat incongruously, it debuted on the soundtrack of The Wedding Crashers. The W.A.N.D.s valedictory cry of We got the power now MOTHER******* well, thats how its spelt, if not how its sung sounds more quaint than disquieting given that Grace Slick was expressing similar sentiments on Jefferson Airplanes Volunteers album pushing four decades ago. The Mellotron and flute-addled preposterousness of Pompeii Am Götterdämmerung sounds like a particularly sombre Moody Blues, although the veteran cosmic rockers never signed their name to an album as sonically sockbound as this one. The humble and hummable coda Goin On acts as a belated palate cleanser, but its still flimsy and insubstantial, a world away from the Lips I know and love.
A crushing, muddy, muddled disappointment then, all told, from a band whove operated beyond the outer fringes of fabulousness for a good half-decade. Strangely charmless, At War With The Mystics is a slog to wade through, sadly.
THE FLAMING LIPS/DEERHOOF Empress Ballroom, Blackpool 8 November 2006
Deerhoof, bless em, certainly mach shau. A decade or more of slogging away at the post-rock hasnt blunted this San Francisco trios enthusiasm for brain-mangling avant melody and howling storms of noise. I heard elements of Tortoise, Mogwai, The Delgados and Galaxie 500 in their primordial sonic broth, alongside the crunchy sharp edges of time signatures smashed beyond all comprehension. Unfortunately a combination of bassist/vocalist Satomi Matsuzakis accent and unfriendly acoustics rendered her words unintelligible (unless one of their songs really does go Rabbit rabbit rabbit rabbit rabbit ad infinitum, which it may well do), rather depriving her elaborate choreography of significance. Cunningly, however, a camera scanning the stage from a vantage point near to guitarist John Dieterichs bare feet, broadcasting to a jumbotron behind the stage, gave the crowd a split-second of forewarning every time he lunged for his effects pedals. (It also relayed the sight of the Lips watching attentively stage-side, a touching, friendly gesture from the headliners, who even lent Deerhoof their drummer for one song.) Listened to at home I suspect that Deerhoof would sound like June Of 44 on a bad day, but live theyre great fun.
Great fun, however, is a phrase that doesnt even begin to scratch the surface of the merest hint of suggesting doing justice to the Flaming Lips live experience. They laid on what mustve been one of the most astonishing sensory barrages Ive ever had the utter delight to bear witness to. Not quite the full production no sign of Wayne Coynes zorb ball, in which hes been known to roll over the adoring audience, or the fake blood that led (bled?) to his adoption of washable suits as stagewear, and the giant balloons had been canned in deference to the venues fragile chandeliers but enough to warp expectations in a genre (lets call it alternative rock, even though the Lips have been signed to Warners for 15 years) where you feel honoured when the band have bothered to bring along a backdrop copped from the artwork of their latest album, even. Tonight the toybox included the aforementioned camera, now secured to Waynes microphone stand, all the better to relay the activities of his hand puppets (a nun, employed to assist with a gentle postlude to Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots Pt. 1, and a dove brought out to help enact My Cosmic Autumn Rebellion), gangs of flashlight-toting audience members on either side of the stage dressed as aliens and Father Christmases, a whole weather front of ticker tape, dry ice and streamers and the videos of the big singles accompanying the stage action on the jumbotron. Oh, and Wayne brought his giant hands along as well.
All this would just be insubstantial flash and hollow glitter if The Flaming Lips didnt have any songs worth listening to, but happily, despite the lurch in quality suffered by this years At War With The Mystics, their arsenal contains some of the most astonishing music ever created by human hands. Frankly, Id had my entrance fees worth when they opened with the cataclysmic gorgeousity of Race For The Prize, but they also honoured us with Fight Test, both volumes of Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots, a predictably luminous Do You Realize??, A Spoonful Weighs A Ton, their greatest hit (in Billboard terms, at least) She Dont Use Jelly, and, uh, a lots from At War With The Mystics, which certainly benefited from being performed in this temple of psychedelic delight. The surprise of the evening was an awesome rendition of Black Sabbaths War Pigs, performed in honour of the recently departed US Secretary of Defense, cut to footage of Dubya.
Being critical, I couldve done without Steven Drozds repeated Mickey Mouse-voiced Thank you, Blackpools, and with all the audience participation, inter-song lectures and puppetry the setlist for this 90 minute performance barely stretched to 13 songs. But lets not forget that they were 13 Flaming Lips songs (well, 12 Flaming Lips songs and one by Black Sabbath), performed in a style that has to be pretty much the apotheosis of how to entertain a few thousand paying audience members. It was an astonishing evening, a surprise-stuffed pleasure and privilege in ways that no other concert Ive ever attended has even attempted. I wouldve hated to have to clean up the next morning though.
THE FLAMING LIPS / STARDEATH AND THE WHITE DWARVES Manchester Academy 16 November 2009
Arriving fashionably late again, Stardeath And The White Dwarves are already on stage and hidden under dry ice and strobe lights by the time I get to the Academy. As if the connection weren’t made explicit enough by the Mercury Rev-jamming-with-Kyuss noise they make, I later discover that their membership includes Wayne Coyne’s nephew. Too many of their songs seem to finish abruptly (which I suppose is at least better than them not finishing abruptly enough), but they have at least one masterful secret weapon in the form of a psych-soaked slo-mo cover of Madonna’s “Borderline”.
In what seems to be becoming a theme at concerts this month, the Lips set expectations to unreasonable by piping the jangly power pop perfection of Big Star’s “The Ballad Of El Goodo” through the PA in the lull between bands – I mean, really, who could follow that? Shortly afterwards, several band members amble on stage, either to launch into what might be some of the more difficult and challenging moments of as-yet-unheard-by-me new album “Embryonic” or to commence soundchecking; on balance I eventually conclude it’s the latter. Next, here’s Wayne Coyne at the mic, dispensing a short health and safety lecture concerning the imminent deployment of his crowd-surfing spaceball, effectively a giant hamster toy in which he’s propelled across the audience by willing heads and hands. Finally, film footage of what appears to be a psychedelically solarised Mrs Coyne is displayed on the screen above the stage, culminating in a pose which presumably she normally shares only with Mr Coyne and her gynaecologist, at which point a door in the screen opens between her thighs, through which the band make their entrance. Wayne himself doesn’t seem to be among them, but wait! He’s on stage in his gradually inflating spaceball, in which he proceeds to gently roll across the top of the crowd. As a gesture of mutual trust and togetherness, I don’t think I’ve ever seen its like at a concert.
Such glorious, cutting edge entertainment, and they haven’t even played any music yet. And when they do, it’s “Race For The Prize”, perhaps the band’s greatest contribution to humanity. If it sounds ever so slightly ragged amidst all the balloons and confetti explosions, it’s still one of the most life-affirming experiences I’ve had at a concert. This is big grin stuff; if only they could bottle it.
For all the spectacle – and there’s a lot of it – there’s a certain lumpiness to parts of the evening. Material from the new album sounds more akin to Can-gone-punk than the spiky Technicolor dreamscapes of yore, and there are numerous empty vessel moments such as “Pompeii am Götterdämmerung” which, for all Wayne’s gong technique, seem like sound and fury signifying sweet nothing. At times like these you’ve got to rely on the fact that, for example, Wayne’s being piggybacked around the stage by a giant gorilla for your entertainment kicks. When the music’s good, though, it’s beyond fabulous. “Fight Test” and “Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots, Part 1” are presented as stripped-down acoustic singalongs. “In The Morning Of The Magicians” positively shimmers, and the climactic “Do You Realize??” is astonishingly joyous in the face of mortality.
Yes, Wayne’s Disney positivity can be overbearing at times. Yes, the quality of the material varies over the course of the evening, the newer and unfamiliar songs inevitably lagging behind those from the “Soft Bulletin”/”Yoshimi” era. Yes, sometimes the spectacle threatened to overwhelm the music. Yet consistently The Flaming Lips have provided the most fun I’ve ever had a concert, an emotional rollercoaster that feeds the ears, eyes, head and heart. For all its flaws, a Flaming Lips concert is a magnificent, magical experience.