There's an unfortunate tendency to neglect the band's early material in favor of focusing on their subsequent, more mature output, an understandable but nonetheless ill-advised decision, and one that will hopefully be rectified now that their early work is once again available, and packaged together at an excellent value in the box-set Finally The Punk Rockers Are Taking Acid, which compiles this, their first three albums and the plethora of wholly superfluous bonus tracks that are invariably included as padding in these oversized comps.
It's easy to dismiss an EP like this. Five tracks, all over extended, featuring everything from the mediocre vocals Mark Coyne (immediately ejected after the EP's release and replaced by his brother Wayne, who is to this day their frontman and lead vocalist) to irritating never ending codas (which frequently employ infuriating gimmicks to exacerbate the aural ordeal, liking fading in and out over and over again for an interminable amount of time) to amateurish instrumentation to criminal underarrangement to horrendous production values to rather rudimentary melodies.
Yet despite all that this remains a highly entertaining listen and an impressive debut. The band may not have found the sound that they'd come to be known for, but they feature a unique sound nonetheless, and are already quite competent songwriting, adept at penning clever riffs and vocal melodies that aren't irredeemably butchered by Mark Coyne's vocal treatment.
All five songs are well written, if a bit stylistically uniform. All follow the same fundamental blueprints, psychedelic pop rockers with loud distorted grinding guitars at the forefront of the sound. This may sound a bit limited when compared to their later work, but it still makes for an enjoyable listen as the band handles this sort of material quite well. Had they never undergone any kind of dramatic evolution then this formula would have grown unforgivably monotonous, but for a starting point one really can't complain with material this well crafted. As slight and insubstantial as these songs are, the band obviously took their composition seriously and it shows.
Even with egregiously inflated lengths, a severely limited range and questionable stylistic choices (extraneous, unbearably codas, using Mark instead of the infinitely superior Wayne as the vocalist, etc.) this is a highly promising debut, and while it may not point the way to the future it at least establishes that the group has one.
Already a huge progression from the debut. While their eponymous EP certainly displayed an abundance of energy and conviction it was ultimately a poor indication of what the group was truly capable of, more of a quick soundbite of the band's music than a real preview of what was to come.
Despite belonging to the oft maligned and perpetually obscure early days of the group, Hear It Is offers a collection of songs brimming with creativity, personality and catchy melodies. While it's still a long way from the group at their peak, it would be criminal to ignore an album of this caliber.
Catchy riffs and memorable vocal melodies abound on the album, and the group is in a constant state of experimentation, searching for clever instrumental ideas or production techniques to enhance the melodies. At this embryonic stage in their career the band are willing to try anything, making for a fresh and energizing experience.
Another major improvement is the introduction of Wayne Coyne as the lead singer, as his vocals are vastly superior to the diminutive range of his brother. Having a legitimate vocalist helps elevate this above their debut, lending credibility to what could otherwise be dismissed as a joke band.
Jesus Shootin' Heroin is a deserved classic, a dark anti-organized religion anthem with moody verses and haunting instrumental breaks. It often eclipses the merits of the other tracks, which is a pity, as there's no filler deserving of that fate.
The tracks range from dark minimalist acoustic-driven tracks (Godzilla Flick) to pretty ballads (yes, She Is Death can be considered not only not pointless tedium but even pretty) to a multitude of harder tracks which continue to prove that the band can rock convincingly (like Charlie Manson Blues). The band frequently shows signs of unbridled creativity (the unique and charming Trains Brains And Rain) and an ever present willingness to experiment with their songs' structures.
Many fans are typified by an insurmountable impatience, and inability to wait for a group to develop into their ultimate form. Their developmental years merely frustrate them as angrily wait for the band they're familiar with to emerge. They don't wish to witness the growth of the group, their early triumphs and stumbles; they don't wish to understand what the band passed through to attain their final form. No matter how exceptionally strong an album is, if it doesn't sound like the more well known material by the group then they want no part of it.
This mentality is truly a pity. This album may be raw, it may be flawed and it may not betray the brilliance exhibited by the group on later outings, but in any other terms it's a highly strong affair, filled with a distinctive personality and creative and catchy melodies. On this album the band search for a musical identity, but the fact that it's a search doesn't diminish its quality; if anything, it makes it all the more fascinating, and creates an atmosphere more conducive toward experimentation.
More of the same, really, if a tad weaker and less fresh this time round. The group fails to deliver any surprises, unless one counts some of the obnoxious excesses they indulge themselves in, such as the intentionally grating Maximum Dream For Evil Knievel, the utterly pointless joke that constitutes Ode To C.C. (Part 1), the uninspired instrumental intro to Prescription: Love or the discordant and utterly superfluous coda to Love Yer Brain that, positioned at the very end of the album, will invariably leave a sour taste in the listener's mouth.
They fail to expand on the sound they established on their full length debut, and unfortunately offer fewer new or interesting ideas as well. That's not to say that the album is weak, however; the majority of the material is still quite strong, and the group's keen melodic sense has hardly atrophied. The album simply lacks the freshness, focus and consistency of Hear It Is, feeling like something of a retread, familiar and with ultimately less to offer.
The highlights are still strong, however. Everything's Explodin' is a catchy riff rocker and an energetic opener, the epic Pink Floyd homage One Million Billionth Of A Millisecond On A Sunday Morning builds from haunting, moody verses to a chaotic astral jam and the defiantly primitive Love Yer Brain, underpinned by the world's most basic and repetitive riff, somehow manages to be quite pretty in its monumental simplicity.
There are certainly enough clever riffs and catchy vocal melodies to sustain the album and make it a worthwhile listen, but that doesn't change the fact that, ultimately, it's an underwhelming experience, suffering from a dearth of new ideas and a greater volume of filler and juvenile misfires. Where on Hear It Is, no matter how strange it became it felt like the band knew what they were doing, on Oh My Gawd!!! it feels, for the most part, like they're just goofing around, tossing off ideas rather than experimenting and coasting along in a set style rather than innovating.
This wouldn't be an issue if, on a song for song level, the album were as strong as HiI, but in this case it seems that they're concerted lack of effort with regards to development had severe repercussions on the album's quality. A lack of evolution breeds stagnation, and the band traditionally needed changes to spark their creativity and lead to new and interesting ideas. Operating in a single paradigm their faculties were dulled, resulting in fewer and lesser melodies and a dearth of clever ideas. They were in dire need of inspiration, and the moment they delved into new territory their songwriting abilities were instantly rejuvenated.
Again more of the same, but this time in the good way, if one is willing to accept the concept that blatant repetition can be a good thing. A retread can either mean that a group, devoid of any direction or inspiration, hastily tosses off a rehash of their last album to appease their record company; or, alternatively, it can be a case where a group has fully mastered a style and thus can deliver a near perfect album in that mode. This is a case of the latter.
Certainly the group would have to change eventually, but for the time being it was sufficient to release an album in a genre whose dynamics they were fully comfortable with. I critiqued OMG for its lack of development, but only because this stagnation extended to the caliber of the songwriting; as long as the group can maintain a high enough quality level I have no objection to their lack of progression.
Why this album is so vilified, even by those who like their previous efforts, completely eludes me. This may be their most consistent outing yet, featuring a multitude of catchy riffs, memorable vocal hooks and clever ideas (like, for instance, the ingenious way they imitate the sound of flying saucers, even if the spoken anecdote the precedes it is wholly expendable and tedious after one listen). The melodies are well written, and while the majority of the material is composed of their typical distorted rockers (which still rock quite convincingly) they insert some acoustic ballads, and even a pretty piano interlude, to ensure that the album doesn't become monotonous.
With consistently strong melodies and fewer lapses of taste than on OMG Telepathic Surgery, in many respects, embodies all that was good about the Lips' first incarnation. While I wouldn't call it the best of the trio (HiI felt fresher and more creative, with more classic tracks, even if it was a tad less consistent) it might be the best place to begin if you're interested in exploring their early work.
It seems a fitting end to the first chapter in the group's history. Having mastered their first style they were at last ready to move on to something different. While for some the group's career would only now begin for real I find that to be an egregiously wrongheaded perspective. As this album displays the Lips' early work had a lot to offer. The band was far too gifted, even in the beginning, to produce material devoid of merit, and these albums reveal the Coyne had an exceptional facility for composing strong melodies even at this point in his career. The Lips' early work was, to put it simply, fun, with myriad catchy riffs and vocal melodies, a plethora of creative ideas and a pervasive, infectious energy. They weren't a great group yet, but they were a group that any open minded fan of their later work should be able to enjoy.
The fanfare for the new incarnation of the Flaming Lips, this EP offered impatient fans a measure of insight into what this new lineup was truly about.
The In A Priest Driven Ambulance sessions had yielded a healthy surplus of material, so naturally, to build anticipation for the inevitable release of the album in full, this EP was issued. The band promised a revolution that transcended a mere guitarist swap, and for many the group's history really begins here with these sessions.
What most ignore, however, is that this dramatic reinvention doesn't really apply to any major stylistic overhaul. The fundamental components of the band are left basically undisturbed, and no vicissitudes have redefined their stable formula.
No, the radical change often cited manifests itself primarily in the songwriting department. Coyne's songwriting skills have developed greatly in the period between TS and the Priest sessions, enough so that the group, even while largely adhering to their old formula, truly sound like a greatly changed band.
While the EP is a rather diminutive sampler of the sessions, featuring only four songs, it's still able to convey the depth of the group's transformation; in the long run, however, the title track alone is sufficient to make that point. The band devoted more time and effort to polishing that song than they had ever allotted to any other track, and this extra attention certainly pays off. An anthemic, heavily distorted rocker featuring sweeping sing-along vocal melodies, Unconsciously Screamin' is truly what the new band is all about, a marvelous feat of songwriting and production. Where the group previously succeeded because of their songs' raw nature, the band is now in a position to capitalize on the benefits of studio trickery, adding a new dimension to their sound. This by no means results in overproduced schlock, as the band is careful to preserve the integrity of their sound, but it still opens up new horizons for a band previously limited by their undeveloped sound.
While the other tracks can't measure up to the glory of the title track they're still strong material, characteristic of the band's new sound. Lucifer Rising is another solid distorted rocker, while Ma, I Didn't Notice and Let Me Be It are typically bizarre but satisfying ballads (though the former, unfortunately, is marred by a wholly superfluous and grating industrial coda). These songs round out what's ultimately a satisfying package, but one ultimately eclipsed by the album it heralds.
It's difficult to call the EP essential, as the title track would later turn up on In A Priest Driven Ambulance and the remaining three songs, while good, don't really necessitate a purchase in and of themselves. The EP made more of an impact at the time, announcing the arrival of a new and improved group; with the subsequent album readily available, however, it loses some of its potency and becomes little more than completist-bait.
Most fans will end up with this EP in the long run, though, as it's packaged with In A Priest Driven Ambulance in the The Day They Shot A Hole In The Jesus Egg package along with a multitude of extraneous covers to compose the obligatory price-inflating padding. It's a good deal, and by no means do the three neglected tracks deserve the anonymity they were condemned to.
As I said in the previous review, the 'new' Flaming Lips weren't all the dissimilar to the 'old' Flaming Lips, as the reinvention came primarily in the form of an improvement in the caliber of the songwriting. The tracks are still bifurcated into distorted rockers and acoustic ballads in their typical fashion, with few surprises barring the novelty cover of (What A) Wonderful World. The direction of the group remains largely unchanged; there's merely been an improvement in the quality of the execution.
Their Jesus fetish continues with the opener Shine On Sweet Jesus, with its discordant yet catchy vocal melody, while Unconsciously Screamin' resurfaces unaltered but still brilliant enough to become an instant highlight. Rainin' Babies is an inspired dose of beautiful dementia, with its catchy repetitive melody and earnest vocals. Take Meta Mars is catchy and moody, while Five Stop Mother Superior Rain is somehow majestic in its own way. Stand In Line makes effective use of an acoustic foundation while God Walks Among Us Now continues the trend of brilliant tracks invoking biblical figures. There You Are and Mountain Side are another good ballad and rocker, respectively, while the aforementioned cover ends the album in a suitably surreal fashion.
What truly separates this album from those the preceded it is its sheer quality and consistency. Each song is a fully fleshed out entity, with no disjointed fragments, experiments in dissonance or undeveloped ideas. Each song is well written, with all the melodies and hooks in their proper places. Each song has something to offer, be it a clever riff or catchy vocal melody, and each song is enhanced by effective production. While Unconsciously Screamin' was the recipient of the most attention on the production front, it wasn't the only beneficiary of studio treatment, and new producer Dave Friedman makes his presence felt on every track without being too intrusive.
I deplore the school of thought that says that the band began here; this album is transparently an extension of its predecessors and should eclipse the sources it's derived from. While it is in every respect an improvement over them it owes far too much to them to be rudely detached from its origins and expected to succeed independent of its context.
Nonetheless this is a truly great album that fulfills all of the group's early potential. Just don't expect it to sound like it was made by a different group from the last three albums.
While the group's newly acquired major label status primarily manifested itself in the form of their songs not sounding like they were recorded in a garage on their last album, here the group goes farther with their new pool of resources, truly taking advantage of what studio production has to offer.
Don't think that this signifies a sellout, however. The group has still not undergone some radical paradigm shift or magical metamorphosis; like IaPDA this is still the Lips of old, albeit with some of their old excesses reigned in, superior songwriting and substantially improved production values.
One of the departments in which they make a higher budget work for them is their capacity to incorporate a wider array of instruments into their songs, helping them realize some previously unattainable orchestral goals. Everything from trumpets to violins to cellos are assimilated into their sound, giving the group a degree of musical versatility never before possible.
Their augmented instrumental repertoire isn't indicative of total abstinence from sonic dissonance, however. But when the group does indulge in the perverse pleasure of aural discord there's a fundamental disparity from their old exploits in that area; when there is dissonance it's carefully managed and forced to adhere to the melody so that it never obscures or hinders the music and actually works in favor of the song.
What the better production means, in the long run, is that the songs are more fleshed out and developed instrumentally, and at this stage in their career the Lips were finally composing songs that could fully benefit from this treatment.
All ten tracks are strong, ranging from Halloween On The Barbary Coast which shifts from a majestic riff to a carefully constructed tune that could act as the poster child for the new, more mature (comparatively speaking, as the song still alludes to people with shit for brains) Flaming Lips, to the near mantra-like soundscape of The Sun.
The songwriting is uniformly tight, there's sufficient diversity to dispel any potential monotony (from the classic distorted rockers to the trademark acoustic ballads to experiments like the aforementioned The Sun) and the better production ensures that every note can be received and appreciated.
The Lips still haven't undergone the transformation attributed to them, and as albums like this show that's all for the better. Better that a group should improve in the departments they're strongest in than suddenly redefine themselves. The group didn't use their new resources to become a new group but to ameliorate what was already there, and in the end that's the wisest decision that could've been made.
Oh, I'm ignoring that unending eardrum-eviscerating cacophony that is the practical joke of track 12. It isn't listed on the back so I'm more than willing to pretend it isn't there. Presumably the listener is capable of pressing the 'stop' button. For those obsessive compulsive individuals who feel compelled to listen to it in its entirety to make sure that there's no aural ecstasy contained at the end I can personally attest to the fact that there is no reward for enduring that ordeal.
The Flaming Lips metamorphose into a pop group. This isn't so much an act of selling out as finding their niche. Besides, the change is hardly a drastic one; fundamentally, the Lips always relied on Coyne's acute pop sensibility, as fact that was obscured by the ubiquitous membrane of distortion that coated their work. Now that that impenetrable wall of distortion has receded it enables the pop melodies to truly shine through, emphasizing Coyne's ever improving songwriting.
That's not to say that distortion has been fully excised from the proceedings; it's simply now used sparingly, making it more effective, often employed as a contrast to the bubblegum pop dynamics. Where it was once a key component of the sound, it's now used as an embellishment; this decision is a significant step in the band's evolution, as they now have nothing to hide behind and are forced to make their melodies strong enough to act on their own. While the wall of distortion may have been removed to make the sound more commercial it's also indicative of a greater level of maturity, as it often seemed present for shock value, an intentional barrier to ward off squeamish, mainstream listeners.
This album was the group's commercial breakthrough, or at least as close to one as they ever experienced. The masturbation anthem She Don't Use Jelly earned them some airplay on the radio, the first instance of mainstream acceptance like that for the group. Unsurprisingly it's one of the weaker numbers on the album, but it's still quite strong, with a catchy melody, an idiosyncratic riff and some irresistible vocal hooks from Coyne that reflect his continual development as a singer.
As brilliant as the last two albums were the songwriting has definitely progressed to a new height here. The melodies are uniformly excellent, an exceptional showcase for the Lips' unique, unconventional brand of pop. The group's made no sacrifices to their sound or personality in order to enact this mainstream crossover, and the music and lyrics are as bizarre and distinctive as ever.
The songs are offbeat and quirky, and the melodies unorthodox and unpredictable. They are pop songs, but by no means do they adhere to the standard rules of pop, rather integrating the established Lips' sound into an overtly pop context.
Ultimately, this album represents a natural step in the group's development, marrying the growth in the caliber of their songwriting displayed on IaPDA, the improved production of HtDitFH and an increased awareness in their own strengths. Coyne had always been a pop songwriter, and with the group's musical progression and superior production he was able to fully realize his potential in that department.
Transmissions From The Satellite Heart is a first rate pop album; to call it a betrayal or a sellout is ridiculous, as it's just an extension of tendencies displayed on previous albums. The group simply sounds right playing music like this; it doesn't compromise their identity in the slightest. This may be a pop album, but the Lips are still much more than a pop group, and no amount of airplay can change that fact.
This album fully completes the group's transition into the world of pop, a journey commenced on the previous album. What this ostensibly means is a plethora of pop hooks and melodies applied to the already existent Flaming Lips template rather than a radical deviation of style. The overall sound can be construed as cheerier, but it's a cheeriness of the unsettling psychotic variety, and one in no way incompatible with the Lips' image.
This may be pop, but it certainly isn't conventional pop. Whether it be the hyper catchy Psychiatric Explorations Of The Fetus With Needles, which is a marriage of distortion, deranged lyrics and irresistible pop vocal melodies, or the melancholy acoustic strumming that segues into a bombastic coda that mirrors the vocal melody in The Abandoned Hospital Ship, the group's brand of pop is never trivial and always distinctive.
The group has taken what they want from pop (instantly memorable catchy melodies, ubiquitous hooks, variations on the classic pop song structure) and fused it with their own offbeat paradigm, resulting in a musical progression for the group without a betrayal of their essence.
And this adherence to basic pop standards is by all means a positive step for the group. Coyne always had a knack for strong songwriting, but he also had a tendency to become caught up in desultory, self-indulgent experimentation that would cause him to stray off the path of the melody and mar otherwise strong compositions. By forcing himself to adhere to the patterns of pop songwriting he prevents any large degree of musical meandering, thus preserving the potency and integrity of the group's main asset, their melodies.
This is a highly bizarre album, but one where the bizarreness never gets in the way of the melodies. Coyne's songwriting is at its zenith here, and the result is a fillerless album filled with catchy melodies and creative ideas. The catchiness of a perfect pop song coupled with the unique Lips persona is truly a magical combination, and this album more than any other in their catalogue demonstrates that a pop album is truly the ideal forum for the group's main strengths.
A huge point of controversy amongst fans, to the extent that it's even attracted the attention of those who'd normally abstain from any indie entanglements and even achieved a degree of historical significance in the annals of rock music. Is this a brilliant, ambitious masterwork or a self-indulgent publicity stunt? While such a middle-of-the-road rating may appear like a copout of criminal magnitude, it accurately represents my feelings in the matter.
Ever been to a Zaireeka party? Four Lips fans bring their CD players to someone's place and invite a bunch of friends. Everyone arrives excited in anticipation of new, unfathomable sonic experiences. By the time they've managed to get all four discs in sync with each other they've lost interest and the party's an unsalvageable mess.
The truth is, listened to the way it was intended Zaireeka may be the epitome of aural bliss, but that's a nearly futile endeavor. The ideal Zaireeka listening experience cannot be replicated. Few have four CD players, and you can't arrange for another Zaireeka party every time you have a desire to listen to the album.
Fortunately the album works with two discs, which is somewhat manageable, but it results in the arrangements sounding thin; their incomplete state is transparent and a definite liability.
And what happens when the novelty value of sonic blasts assailing you from all corners of the room wears thin? Then it becomes painfully clear that the album's innovation and consummate gimmickry comes at the expense of the songwriting quality. The melodies aren't bad, but they can't compare to their better work and were obviously meant to derive their potency from their presentation rather than their craftsmanship.
The truth is that the Lips, while a great band, never needed four discs to make their point. This newfound sonic freedom, coupled with their obsessive need to fill every last empty space of sound, causes them to lapse into old habits, piling the vacuums with endless dissonant effluvia. Why sonic explorations need entail constant barrages of aural discord is beyond me; the Lips had proven that they didn't need that juvenile crutch to be effective or adventurous. But it returns in full force here, in bold new ear-eviscerating frequencies previous unattainable, exacerbated by the stranglehold it has on you.
This doesn't change the fact, however, that on some levels it's an inherently intriguing idea and a somewhat enjoyable experience. It's difficult to take in one sitting without developing a rather sizable headache, but for a time it can be rather entertaining. It won't be something you'll want to experience on a regular basis, but every once and a while it can make for a good time.
I would never just give it points for innovation or pioneering the sonic landscape of rock. Anyone can come up with a gimmick; there's no intrinsic merit to that. I give it credit for the fact that much of the time, when it's not bogged down by childish pranks on the listener like a barrage of barking or insect noise or sadistically high frequencies, it truly works, and betrays signs of the Lips' usual brilliance.
It's obvious that more attention was paid to the gimmick than the songwriting, but the latter wasn't wholly neglected, and that's refreshing. But deep down this is a novelty experience, and that's an innate defect that prevents the album from amounting to much more than a curious oddity. Had the Lips done something brilliant or truly inspired with the gimmick then it would have fully justified the project, but they didn't; they didn't do a bad job with it, but they didn't really do anything that new or exciting. They made it feel like a gimmick album, not a stroke of genius. It is striking, but more due to cheap tricks like unpleasant aural onslaughts than creative ideas or uses of the concept.
But even if this is a novelty album, at least it's not a cheap toss-off. The Lips obviously devoted considerable, serious effort to the creation of this album, even if they focused a bit too much on the wrong areas. But if they wanted it to be more than a joke they should have restrained themselves from all the cheap jokes that undermine the whole process. Humor is an important aspect of the Lips' persona, but it should never come at the expense of the listener. Some college students at a Zaireeka party may laugh when the barking dogs come on, but it won't be something you'll want to hear on a regular basis; a joke only works the first time.
Ignoring the rather pronounced digression that was Zaireeka, The Soft Bulletin is the logical next step in the course started by TFtSH, albeit taken to an extreme that could not necessarily have been anticipated.
Where TFtSH moved the band in a poppier direction, and CTM fully embraced the genre, tSB goes one step farther. The former albums, while firmly rooted in the pop genre, retained much of the band's fundamental sound, sporting the usual psychotic energy and their ubiquitous trusty distorted guitars. Rather than truly changing their sound, the band simply moved their songwriting in a poppier direction while keeping their style static.
tSB, however, eschews much of the trappings of the old Lips sound, dropping the distorted guitars and opting for a more enervated pace, making for a much more serious product. There is humor, but it's comparatively subdued and never extends to the music itself, confined to the inevitable surreal lyrics.
What this makes for is the least recognizable Lips album, the White Pepper of the group; like Ween's venture into normality, this is the group's attempt to rein in their more flamboyant tendencies in an effort to make a more mature product.
tSB is a lush pop album, filled with moments of genuine beauty and featuring intricate, sophisticated arrangements. These arrangements, unfortunately, are often used to compensate for a lack of interesting melodies. When the arrangements are coupled with strong melodies, however, they make for moments of true brilliance, like the classic opener Race For The Prize, a song that proves that encoded vocals can actually be beautiful if used correctly.
The album embraces the ethos of Pet Sounds, indulging in beauty for beauty's sake. This philosophy works, for the most part, but it isn't always supported by songwriting of the caliber necessary for such an endeavor, and impeccable arrangements and immaculate production can only go so far.
This isn't to denigrate the quality of the songwriting. For the most part it's up to the Lips' high standards, and by no means have the group forgotten how to pen a good hook. But in many respects the problem seems to stem from the simple fact that the group has intentionally turned their back on many of their strengths. An endless procession of slow songs can grow monotonous regardless of their quality, and the lack of guitar makes for a rather uniform sound. The group specialized in up tempo tracks, and it was the mix of fast rockers and slow acoustic interludes that made their best work so successful.
It's easy to understand what the group was trying to accomplish here, and they ought to be commended for succeeding to the extent that they did. Few groups can forsake their style to undertake a project of this level of ambition. But this doesn't change the fact that the Lips are at their best in their own style, and while it may be branded as 'immature' there's no shame in playing to their strengths. The Lips didn't need an album like this to prove themselves; Coyne's been a great songwriter from the beginning, and CTM is more of a testament to his brilliance than this album could ever be.
Regardless, though, were the songwriting just a bit more consistent and the tone a bit more varied I could place this up there with the group's best work. It is a beautiful album and an undeniably strong listen. Even the lesser tracks are redeemed by clever arrangements, and there's nothing I would dismiss as filler (save the aggressively superfluous remixes of the singles that force the listener to make the physical strain of pressing the off button on their CD player). As it is, however, I've call this their weakest album since IaPDA ushered in their golden period (barring Zaireeka, which is impossible to compare to anything and likes it that way). By no means should a fan overlook it unless they're very obstinate when it comes to what the group should sound like, but those who praise it at the expense of the group's other material betray their utter incompatibility with the band's sound.
Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots is an homage to the newly trendy anime phenomenon, but that fact doesn't really figure prominently into the album in any respect.
What is immediately apparent, however, is that the band is continuing in the direction started on tSB rather than returning to the classic Lips sound, and in some departments taking this sound even farther. What enables them to do this is that, at long last, Coyne has access to a sizable budget, providing him with the capacity to realize many of his previous unfeasible studio dreams.
What this makes for, if nothing else, is a sonically fascinating album, an aural panorama that feels as multi-layered as the infamous Zaireeka without the benefit of three additional discs. Every space on the album is occupied by some strange effect, and the density of the sound is truly a marvel.
Unfortunately, this causes the group to, more than ever, hide behind the production. Many of the melodies are rather pedestrian and undeveloped, while the group attempts to distract the listener from this fact with an armada of overlapping sound effects assailing your eardrum in tandem. With this constant parade of aural oddities the listener can never grow truly bored, but this procession of superficial diversions doesn't constitute the most rewarding listen, and makes one yearn for something with genuine substance.
Which, fortunately, the album is not altogether bereft of. Many of the songs offer enough on their own terms that they could survive even without this aural augmentation. Riffs are no longer the band's forte, so the songs get by primarily on catchy vocal melodies and instrumental hooks. Moments like the unforgettable chorus of Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots Pt. 1 are simultaneously deranged, incredibly catchy and unmistakably the work of the Flaming Lips, a return to the irresistible insanity of old.
Furthermore, the album continues the quest for beauty embarked upon on the previous album. Gorgeous moments abound, enhanced by the improved production.
The tracks are uniformly slow again, but at least moments like the instrumental Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots Pt. 2, an anthem meant to conjure visions of a futuristic war against giant automatons, help to break up the monotony.
On the whole the album is neither as consistently well written or beautiful as its predecessor in the new era of Lips albums, but at least it isn't a mere rehash, and its experimentations with studio trickery are welcome and used to good effect. But as for the future, one would hope that they return the focus to the songwriting rather than their masturbatory fiddling with studio switches and dials. The elaborate productions makes for an interesting listen but it's no substitute for quality song craftsmanship.
The Lips will likely never return to their old style, and I have no objections to that. But if they want to make this new one work then they'll have to remember what their strengths are and adapt them to their new context. They can survive the loss of distorted guitars, but they can't survive the loss of consistently strong, exciting melodies.
An archetypal EP if there ever was one, complete with fan-bait exclusive originals and the obligatory remix padding. In other words, only hardcore fans need apply, and it's not even essential for them either.
Which isn't to say that this is a bad EP by any means; in fact, it completes all of its objectives with admirable precision.
The remixes are sufficiently different from the originals to merit attention, and the mutability of the title track in particular is quite astonishing. While devoting nearly half of the EP to revamped material from YBtPR is somewhat questionable, the situation is ameliorated by the fact that the two templates for revision, the title track and Do You Realize??, were indeed two of the strongest from the album, and counter intuitively placing the two renditions of the title track side by side works extremely well, emphasizing how radically altered the two versions are.
Meanwhile the new material is uniformly decent and thoroughly inoffensive. One problem that must be noted in the band's recent work is that, even when the melodies are strong, the universal smoothness that coats the tracks mars their memorability. In their classic years the constant jagged edges helped the songs stick in the listener's mind, and the decision to smooth out these edges, while it certainly has its benefits, is a liability that can only be compensated for with extremely well written, catchy melodies that can transcend the handicaps of the new sound. While perfectly adequate, these new songs can hardly claim to have accomplished this feat, and are ultimately relegated to the role of being a pleasant enough listen while they're on but condemned to vanish from your mental jukebox the moment they're over. These aren't lost gems unjustly consigned to a life of anonymity on an obscure EP; they were excised from the album because, while nothing was wrong with them, they were thoroughly unexceptional, and there's no reason to run out to buy this EP before they fade from this world forever.
The new tracks' proximity to the remixes really illustrates the qualitative disparity between them and the best YBtPR has to offer. There's no The Trickster or some other elusive classic to be found here, only more decent work for fans in desperate need of a Lips fix. These fans won't be disappointed, as they'll know what to expect from an EP trying to cash in on the success of the album that preceded it. It is new Lips material, it is competent enough, and for some people that will be enough.
At War With The Mystics picks up right where The Soft Bulletin and Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots left off, continuing to provide catchy pop gems, lush, beautiful soundscapes and the occasional rocker. While it doesn't execute this feat with the melodic strength of its predecessors, it remains a very good product and another worthy installment in the Flaming Lips' catalogue.
Once again Coyne displays his obsession with filling every empty space in each track with something from his aural arsenal of sound effects, and while this understandably sounds a tad excessive improbably enough it works, with these disparate sounds coming together to form strong, memorable songs. Rather than obstruct the melodies these sound effects complement them perfectly, lending the album a unique sound that's the conglomerate of all of Coyne's meticulous toiling and the precision of his production.
Coyne doesn't hide behind this sonic trickery at the expense of the melodies, however. The caliber of the songwriting is quite strong, and while aspects of the arrangements can be grating at first (such as the yeah-yeah-yeahs in the opener appropriately enough entitled The Yeah Yeah Yeah Song), they're sort of an acquired taste, and once the listener has adjusted to them they become indispensable parts of the experience.
Highlights include the power pop of the aforementioned opener, the beautiful ballad The Sound Of Failure and the infectious catchiness of It Overtakes Me, but overall there's only a modicum of filler. The melodies aren't comparable with the best the previous two albums had to offer, and are completely stylistically incompatible with any of the band's work before that point, but nonetheless At War With The Mystics is a fine outing for the group, a continuation of a modality that the Flaming Lips can still implement with skill and enthusiasm.
While it adheres to the framework of the last two albums the content is sufficiently different that there's no risk of creative stagnation. There are several instances of melodies that sound suspiciously reminiscent of past works but by and large Coyne has managed to concoct a new set of solid tunes, injecting added personality into them through the medium of his limitless array of sound effects. It's this fusion of strong songwriting and studio trickery that the band relies on to convey their current musical identity, and it's a careful balance that results in yet another very good product from the group.
One would assume that if The Flaming Lips created a film they'd be apt to fill its soundtrack with full-fledged songs and ambitious instrumentals, but surprisingly enough the group demonstrated admirable restraint, composing material that adroitly complements the movie without drawing undue attention to itself and distracting the viewer from their cinematic experience.
Unfortunately while this certainly makes for a better film, it doesn't make for a terribly compelling listening experience for those without the benefit of the movie's space-based imagery, providing unremarkable soundscapes that, while deftly evoking the atmosphere of the film's interstellar environments, fail to offer much in the way of hooks or melodies.
Bereft of any lyrics, the soundtrack to Christmas On Mars is an endless procession of generic instrumentals with virtually nothing in the way of diversity. Nearly every track is designed solely to inspire mental images of the depths of outer space, ultimately sounding like something akin to the tunes that they play on the queue to Disneyland's Space Mountain as opposed to well constructed music by one of the top groups in the contemporary music scene.
Some of the tracks manage to stand out a bit, like the morbidly rousing The Gleaming Armament Of Marching Genitalia and the relatively intriguing Space Bible With Volume Lumps, but, on the whole, when divorced from its intended context the bulk of the album sounds wholly unremarkable, lacking the personality and tight songwriting that's customarily been the hallmark of The Flaming Lips.
It's ironic, but ultimately the very factors that make Christmas On Mars a strong soundtrack are precisely the same elements that make it a mediocre album. The lack of developed melodies and insistent hooks is ideal for watching a movie, but hardly conducive to an entertaining listening experience. Thus Christmas-On-Mars-the-soundtrack's merits conspire against Christmas-On-Mars-the-album, resulting in a tepid affair that even a Flaming Lips fanatic would scoff at.
While The Flaming Lips had undergone dramatic paradigm shifts throughout their career, from low-budget indie rock dominated by sloppy distorted guitars to manic psychedelic rave-ups to gorgeous, pristine and shimmering pop soundscapes, there were certain constants that fans of the group thought they could count on, unchanging realities that seemed to be inherent and inescapable aspects of the band.
The Flaming Lips were not without ambition, but at heart their work tended to be slight, lightweight and insubstantial, not to mention eminently accessible. In the context of the band these were never faults, as these characteristics tended to translate into a certain charming and affable easy-going nature, invitingly bereft of challenging complexity and heady lyrical subtexts.
Seemingly the band's recent work corroborates this line of thought. Admittedly Christmas On Mars didn't conform to this model, but given that album's soundtrack status this was to be expected.
At War With The Mystics, however, reinforced these notions about the band's innate nature and resultant limitations. The album was perfectly solid, if unremarkable, but moreover it came off as a quintessential Flaming Lips release, filled with quirky, catchy and easily-digestible nuggets of offbeat pop stylings. The album was anything but intimidating, daunting or confrontational; on the contrary, it was consummately and uniformly accessible, devoid of greater pretensions or avant garde tendencies.
With Embryonic, however, The Flaming Lips have shattered this stereotype, dispelling the image of the band that fans, critics and even total Coyne-novices have harbored for decades.
Embryonic is unwelcoming in both tone and length, features dissonant passages and is self-indulgent in the extreme. It's cold, robotic and emotionally distancing. It largely eschews basic pop melodies in favor of complex arrangements, savage bass-lines and experimental sound-collages. It's also the greatest serious artistic statement from a band that no one ever thought would produce a serious artistic statement.
It may seem paradoxical to say so, but a concept album needn't feature an explicit concept. Not all albums of this nature require a unifying narrative, a transparent core idea or a consistent musical style. Thus it's safe to say that even though Embryonic lacks these properties it's still a concept album, a listening experience that's made a cohesive whole through its overarching moods, tones and themes.
In this regard the album can be seen as Wayne Coyne's Dark Side Of The Moon, a dark and disturbing voyage through his mind that manages to express his emotions even as it's related through cold, robotic hues and textures.
The Flaming Lips had often featured dark lyrics, but they were invariably animated by a pervasive sense of absurdity and whimsy. Embryonic, on the other hand, is profoundly and genuinely melancholic throughout, relentlessly dark in both tone and substance. This isn't a put-on on Coyne's part, but rather a very real tenebrous character that informs the entire album, compounded by the raw, savage feel of Embryonic as a whole.
In addition to Dark Side Of The Moon, another apt point of comparison for the album is Krautrock, particularly the work of Amon Duul II. The detached, mechanical nature of Embryonic recalls the lack of humanity that characterizes groups like Amon Duul II and Faust, not to mention the experimental tendencies and overriding ambitions that The Flaming Lips share with their Germanic predecessors.
As inaccessible as Embryonic is, it still features an array of catchy melodies. Despite this, however, not that many tracks would stand up to intense individual scrutiny. There are a number of exceptions, like The Sparrow Looks Up At The Machine, Worm Mountain and Watching The Planets, but by and large the album works far better as a whole than a collection of separate songs, a product that's very much more than the sum of its parts.
This can be attributed to several factors. For one, even when songs feature genuinely strong hooks they tend to resemble many of the other tracks in tone and style. They may contain unique melodies but these hooks are overshadowed by certain atmospherics that permeate the entire album, which makes for tracks that, when divorced from their proper context in the album, become virtually interchangeable and thus poor standalone listens.
This very flaw becomes an asset when dealing with the album as a whole, because this unity in form and purpose helps The Flaming Lips transfigure Embryonic into its own musical world, a fascinating sonic universe that's further enriched by the overlapping themes, tones and styles that compose the listening experience.
This isn't to say that the tracks resemble one another that acutely. Rather, there are certain shared traits that only acquire true heft and meaning when combined with the rest of the album as a whole. Even without these components the songs are still strong, as Coyne remains as skilled a songwriter as ever; it's merely that the unifying atmospherics and themes serve to realize the true depth of the album.
As I've stated, the melodies on Embryonic are very impressive. Nevertheless, as could be expected from an album where the group's ambitions are focused on more abstract elements than catchy pop hooks, this newest batch of melodies can't compare to those found on CDs like Transmissions From The Satellite Heart and Clouds Taste Metallic. This is hardly surprising, as those albums were devoid of ambitions beyond providing infectious pop hooks in high volumes, but it bears mentioning that even when Embryonic represents the zenith of The Flaming Lips' artistic merit it doesn't represent the zenith of their pop instincts.
Therefore I wouldn't necessarily call Embryonic Coyne's finest hour. It's a truly great album, and a profoundly fascinating artistic vision on numerous levels, but this shouldn't detract from the merits of the band's older, lesser ambitious work. There's no shame in being a pop album, let alone a great pop album, so it's best to simply assess Embryonic on a different scale from the likes of Clouds Taste Metallic, rather than allowing it to block out the considerable assets of the band's prior output.
The worst thing that a remake can be is redundant. This may seem contradictory; after all, there's a degree of redundancy inherent to any such endeavor. But for a remake to feel identical to its source, to come across as wholly extraneous and uninspired, makes for a product that has precious little to offer in the way of artistic worth. A remake must struggle to find something, anything new or different to provide its audience with, and in this regard even a terrible work is preferable to one that fails to establish a new identity for itself. Therefore, as far as remakes are concerned, offering something new is of paramount importance, and thus only once this hurdle has been overcome can one begin to address issues of quality or merit.
Fortunately, The Flaming Lips' newest venture (or collaboration, to be more precise), a remake of Pink Floyd's seminal, epoch-defining masterpiece Dark Side Of The Moon, deftly manages this feat. While ultimately quite faithful to the source material, Wayne Coyne and company certainly leave their stamp upon the final product, and the result is an album that while hardly necessary is definitely a good deal more than superfluous.
Of course, one must deal with certain innate limitations. The album can only be enjoyed once one accepts that no track is as strong as, let alone superior to, its Pink Floyd equivalent. This goes without saying; all artists involved are transparently huge fans on the original classic, and by no means have they set out to one-up the masters. This is a labor of love, an homage, but it's not a substitute or replacement.
Furthermore, given The Flaming Lips' reputation as a quirky, offbeat and whimsical rock outfit one might anticipate something akin to a parody or a spoof, but this couldn't be further from the case. The bands are borderline reverential when it comes to the source material, and in no way do they seek to poke fun at, undermine or subvert the original work.
To be honest, this last disclaimer would have been more relevant if this album was but a few years older, when thoughts of The Flaming Lips conjured associations like the innuendo-laden pop of She Don't Use Jelly or anime send-ups like Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots. Since then, however, the band have nearly reinvented themselves with their first serious artistic statement, Embryonic, and in this context a faithful interpretation of Dark Side Of The Moon is far more understandable.
In fact, this project shouldn't be surprising at all. Throughout my review of Embryonic I drew many parallels between the album and Pink Floyd's masterwork. Both albums are cold, distancing and yet somehow deeply personal meditations on the nature of depression and sanity, haunting and cerebral works that envelop the listener in a pseudo-psychedelic world of unnerving atmospherics and mechanical, forbidding soundscapes.
Thus it's only suitable that The Flaming Lips pay tribute to a group that they've borrowed, learned and appropriated so much from on their latest outing. Of course, while Coyne and company may have been inspired by Pink Floyd on Embryonic they remained true to many aspects of their own style, and this integration is reflected on their remake of Dark Side Of The Moon. They weren't trying to be Pink Floyd when they made Embryonic, and they're not even trying to be Pink Floyd when they cover that very band's work.
This is a Dark Side Of The Moon that's tailor-made to the strengths and weaknesses of The Flaming Lips and their partners. Given the groups' indie origins, it's no surprise that the album is far less sleek and polished than the original. Where Pink Floyd thrived on intricately arranged, immaculately produced soundscapes, the Lips' equivalent is far more rough and raw, lacking the studio sheen and instrumental perfection that Roger Waters demanded for his output.
Likewise, where the sound-effects on the original Dark Side Of The Moon were deeply calculated and executed with the utmost precision, the equivalents on the remake come across as sloppy and improvised. This doesn't make for a 'worse' experience, but rather a different one, one that reflects this album's unique agenda.
No track is a carbon copy of its forebear. Breathe rocks with a reckless abandon that's nothing like its stately, sedate Pink Floyd counterpart, while On The Run actually comes across as more musically-oriented than its sound-effect filled, synth-loop driven precursor. Time, on the other hand, actually rocks less, though its pretty, melancholic sound still manages to match the original's angst and despair.
The vocals on The Great Gig In The Sky are wisely entrusted to Peaches, who acquits herself quite admirably if still falling well short of her brilliant predecessor. This cut of Money may raise the ire of many with its tinny drums and encoded vocals, but I actually feel it works quite well, providing one banishes all memories of the original from one's mind (then again, that's a prerequisite for enjoying any track on the album). Us And Them retains much of the emotional potency of the original, while Any Colour You Like affords the bands a good chance for some psychedelic jamming.
Brain Damage takes a more minimalist approach that helps make a profoundly unsettling track all the more frightening, only to segue into a faithful but effective version of Eclipse, a track that will always hold a place in the rock and roll pantheon as one of the few truly perfect notes to end an album on.
It's true that nearly any merit the album has is a direct result of the genius of the original, but in the context of a remake this can be forgiven. Ultimately I find The Flaming Lips' version to be hugely entertaining, and while I don't try to pretend that this isn't because Dark Side Of The Moon is one of my favorite albums of all time I still give the groups credit for at least some imaginative new arrangements and some adroit performances. The album pales in comparison to the original, but in the long run it's not simply redundant, and it is very, very enjoyable.