Discover... The Flaming Lips
Welcome to the first in what we hope will be a series of Discover... articles, written by various writers here at Noise to Signal, as we're so inspired. With these articles we aim to provide information on the past releases of artists and musicians we think you will enjoy, along with what we hope is some informed opinion that will help you start with the album that's right for you. The first band in our spotlight: The Flaming Lips.
The Flaming Lips are a very interesting band...one of the best things about them is also one of the worst: none of their albums really sound the same. For music fans who enjoy fresh and constant experimentation, this is an enormous selling-point, but it does tend to isolate certain members of their audience who believe they found "the right sound" in one of their albums only to leave it behind in their preparations for the next.
One thing is for sure, whether you enjoy all of their experiments or not, you have to give them credit for being true to themselves, and not falling into any perceivable pattern of repetition. One thing you can always be sure of, no matter what album you decide to buy first, is that you're going to be getting a collection of quirky (but never irritating) songs as performed by remarkably gifted musicians, and even when they may be heading down a path that doesn't quite interest you, they reward repeat listenings by writing songs that seem almost calculated to reveal their inner beauty only the tenth or eleventh time through.
Comparisons? Well, Pink Floyd would be an obvious--and not entirely unfounded--one. Both bands favored experimentation over imitation, both tend to take extended forays into science-fiction, and they're both renowned for their innovative, ever-changing stage shows. But the Flaming Lips aren't Pink Floyd Jr. They're an entity all to themselves, and they seem to be committed to pushing the boundaries of just what music can do, one inimitable song at a time.
Transmissions From the Satellite Heart (1993)
Their first major album for Warner Bros. is the first exposure most people had to The Flaming Lips. They had a respectable hit with She Don't Use Jelly, thanks in large part to MTV, which was being very generous with quirky songs and performers at the time. The odds are you've heard it on the radio, whether you realize it or not, but as it's not really representative of the album itself, it's probably better if you don't realize it.
Transmissions From the Satellite Heart is still the band's one true Rock Album. It's full of Lips personality, and their later obsession with studio wizardry is indeed found here in embryonic form if you know where to listen, but this is also The Flaming Lips at their most respectful for simple, exciting, raw rock and roll. Unfortunately, that does make the songs a little less distinct when looking back on them later. If anything Transmissions is most notable for prefiguring what was to follow.
None of this is to say that the album is any kind of slouch at all. In fact, it's really only lacking when compared to their later, more-masterful releases. From the opening Turn it On you know exactly what you're in for: chunky electric chords, slow-pulsing energy, and an edgy--but still restrained--attitude toward what music is, and can be. This is a talented band trying to feel itself out and discover its own limits, and it's a pleasure to report that this necessary step in any band's development is such a pleasure to revisit here.
Two of the strongest tracks are the double-ticket of Be My Head and Moth in the Incubator, one of which is oddly triumphant in a sort of repressed-romantic way, and the other abstracted and moody, but they're all respectable cuts of their own accord. Most telling about the band at this period in their development is the fact that the "slow song" on the album is Plastic Jesus (as popularized by the film Cool-Hand Luke), one they, obviously, did not write themselves, likely not comfortable enough themselves to write a "plaintive ballad" of their own. Come Yoshimi, however, they'd be writing them better than anybody else has in two decades. All you have to do, sometimes, is stick to it...
If I could take only one song with me to the moon: Slow Nerve Action
Clouds Taste Metallic (1995)
The first time you listen to Clouds Taste Metallic, you are going to turn the volume up to better hear the vocals of The Abandoned Hospital Ship, unaware that they're supposed to be softer than the rest of the album...and you will subsequently end up thrown backward from your stereo when the explosive outro begins. It's an uncomfortable, but obviously intentional, introduction to an album that, for its first two or three listens, might be a little too easily mistakable for noise. (Which is, perhaps, because music this quirky has never been known for its excessive volume.)
In fact, it's sometimes difficult--until one develops a familiarity--to separate one song from another. They have a lot in common, sonically-speaking, and it's not often here that The Flaming Lips drop their "loud as possible" mission statement. (And, when they do, be assured that it's only so it can kick back in a few bars down the line.) But that's not what I would call the album's main weakness.
The album's main weakness is that it lacks a strong central direction. By "central direction" I don't necessarily mean concept so much as I mean some understanding by the band of what the album's "point" is--what it hopes to accomplish, and as the next two albums (skipping Zaireeka) will prove, The Flaming Lips are at their best when they're all facing the same direction, however obscure and vaguely defined that direction might be. A great album that you should definitely pick up at some point after being initiated, but I'd think twice about recommending it to a beginner.
If I could take only one song with me to the moon: The Abandoned Hospital Ship
I'm of two minds about whether to include this or not...you might notice that I've not bothered to list the band's various EPs and collections of early recordings, basically because they're not really the sort of thing somebody "new" to The Flaming Lips would be looking to dive into. And Zaireeka is, in all honesty, little more than an extended audio experiment...and it's one which, more than a little sadly, was rendered redundant just a few years later when 5.1 surround sound became easily accessible to anyone who wanted it.
Zaireeka is about an album's worth of music, but you're buying four discs. The idea is that you are supposed to play each disc simultaneously on four different stereos distributed around the room (which would have, at the time, provided you with eight speakers), and the various instruments and studio effects would seem to rotate around you, or come at you from different directions, or various other things you can experience now just by watching 24 on DVD.
I don't feel bad giving Zaireeka the short shrift (nor do I feel obligated to rank it) because the band themselves reportedly realize that it's not an experiment for the passive fan...it's for die-hards interested in the dynamics of aural psychology. I am interested in that sort of thing but I don't own four stereos, and therefore had to give Zaireeka a miss, regardless of how ingenious (if unwieldy) the idea was. Also, people started ripping the tracks and layering them together to swap with friends through P2P programs. Check and you'll still be able to find them. This fan gesture sort of cheapened the whole concept for me...but some of you might still like to check it out.
If I could take only one song with me to the moon: The Big Ol' Bug is the New Baby Now, because it's one of the best song titles ever
The Soft Bulletin (1999)
Ah, here it is...the band's first masterpiece, and one that stands up just fine against any "larger" band's best work. This is the first time they managed to merge commercial success with critical success, and, honorably, they did so not by abandoning their non-traditional approach to making music, but by following it fearlessly further and further away from pop music's traditional comfort zone. They meshed styles and emotions and moods, so much so that oftentimes each song feels like it's made up of at least two smaller ones...or, in the case of The Spark That Bled, even more.
The music is powerful and the songs (lyrically abstract as ever) are effectively evocative of looming, artfully undefined dangers and fears. A Spoonful Weighs a Ton (with its childlike single-rhyme scheme) is a good representative track from the album; it seems to be about a narrowly-averted global catastrophe, the escape from which we owe to a group of saviors not entirely convinced that we were worth saving ("And though they were sad they rescued everyone.") The delivery of the song's lyrics threaten to float away on synthesized strings but the between-verse segments snap us back to reality with an ugly, raw, filthy electronic swirl. And yet both moods fit together, each keeping the other in check, and each elaborating upon the other rather than detracting.
The entire album owes itself to a sort of wider understanding than any single song can deliver; while any of these songs are rewarding the listen to in isolation, the entire album is an experience, which is something that can be said of all of rock's greatest albums. It also features two of the band's most beautiful compositions yet, the "need-a-hug" song Waiting on a Superman and that slow military-march into death, Feeling Yourself Disintegrate.
Oh, and if you've ever wanted a love song to sing along to without ever having to feel like you're actually being romantic, you could do a lot worse than What is the Light?, described in the liner notes as being "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." A far cry from I Want to Hold Your Hand, to be sure.
If I could take only one song with me to the moon: Feeling Yourself Disintegrate
Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots (2002)
The Soft Bulletin was so good that it's almost supernatural that this album can be quite so much better. What's the proper term for describing an album at least five times better than a masterpiece? Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots is more than a gorgeous achievement in modern rock, it's one of the best artistic experiences one can ever hope to get out of a single compact disc. Let there be no confusion: I love this album.
Though you might be tempted to try to find some kind of story-arc upon which you can hang this album's tracks, the real cohesiveness comes not from a consistent cast of characters or from rising and falling action...it comes from running themes and a gradual, mature exploration of a small set of moods--none of which are particularly optimistic, but the music is always gentle enough to keep you safe. There might be lions in those cages but you're riding along with The Flaming Lips, and their innocence is contagious. You are safe from harm with these men (boys?), and along the way you're going to learn things about yourself that you never understood before.
These are examinations of human emotion so deep and profound that only Wayne Coyne's childlike lyrics and voice can convey them sufficiently. He's writing here at his best, a cross between Nick Drake, Kurt Vonnegut and a curious toddler. "I don't know how a man decides what's right for his own life. It's all a mystery." "I was waiting on a moment, but the moment never came." "It's summertime, and I can understand if you still feel sad." And, from perhaps the most confusingly reassuring song ever written, "Do you realize that everyone you know someday will die?"
Do You Realize?? is a chilling achievement in popular music, and is immensely moving. It's a kind of love song coupled with the awareness of life's constant futility, and it's beautiful. It raises large questions in small ways, and, rather than answer them, it advises the listener to just enjoy life while it's here, in all of its flaws, with all of its miseries, because it's all we will ever have...a fact reinforced by All We Have is Now, a song in which the singer meets up with himself from the future and is granted the specific knowledge of when he is going to die. Rather than become fatalistic he seems to become...well, you decide.
There are very few albums I could rank above Yoshmi in terms of overall quality, and that's saying an awful lot. Your first few listens will be enjoyable; every listen after that will be utterly heartbreaking.
If I could take only one song with me to the moon: In the Morning of the Magicians
At War With the Mystics (2006)
In the four years that followed Yoshimi, the band dropped hint after hint (in the form of exciting new songs on special-issue EPs) that a new musical project was in the works, and, though it was taking some time, it was bound to represent as large a step forward from Yoshimi as Yoshimi represented from Soft Bulletin. Instead, what we got was At War With the Mystics, which contained none of those songs and actually represents the only significant step backward the band has ever taken. And watch that step...it's a doozy.
What happened? The EP material was brilliant. Songs like Assassination of the Sun felt like Yoshimi crossed with some new, as-yet-unexplored sonic territory through which the Lips were preparing to excitedly lead us. Even Thank You Jack White (For the Fiber-Optic Jesus That You Gave Me) represented an overtly playful incarnation of the Lips that might not have been the natural next step for the band but certainly wouldn't have been a wholly unwelcome one.
So imagine my disappointment when this is what surfaced instead...a collection of limp reminders that The Flaming Lips don't like Bush. Yippee.
The Lips have always been a band that flourished in simplicity, but here it just becomes tedious. The lyrics are too direct and the issues and questions it raises are too superficial. The album's flagship cut is The Yeah Yeah Yeah Song, a decent, jangly little rocker undercut by the worthlessness of its own "insight." And Haven't Got a Clue has got to be the band's worst lyrical composition yet--a song so bad that you should thank me for not quoting it. It doesn't help that Wayne Coyne warbles his way through most of the songs in a way that seems to suggest he's not sure what emotion he's even trying to convey.
It's not a total loss, to be honest. The music, while nowhere near as good as the previous two albums, isn't awful, and if At War had been an entirely instrumental experiment it probably would have been pretty cool. The W.A.N.D. might be another simplistic slog through overbearing morality, but the guitar is pretty hot. Also, Free Radicals is both a hilarious Prince impersonation and a darn decent song on its own. But for The Flaming Lips? Nah. These guys can do much better. And, believe me, once Bush is out of office, they will.
If I could take only one song with me to the moon: Free Radicals