The Flaming Lips

The Flaming Lips
Hear It Is
Oh My Gawd!!!…The Flaming Lips
Telepathic Surgery
Finally, The Punk Rockers Are Taking Acid
In A Priest Driven Ambulance
Hit To Death In The Future Head
Transmissions From The Satellite Heart
Clouds Taste Metallic
The Soft Bulletin
Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots
At War With The Mystics

The Flaming Lips (Restless ’85) Rating: B
This self-financed debut by this eccentric, born for a cult following Oklahoma band is poorly produced and at times amateurish but is good fun nevertheless. Featuring Mark Coyne’s limited vocal abilities, which are wisely mixed into the background (this would be his lone album with the band), the band’s unique, sloppy mix of metallic riffs and swirling psychedelia sometimes seems stuck in a ‘60s time warp. However, the thickly distorted power chords and lyrics like “I want my own planet, the human race I can’t stand it” (it rhymes better when you sing it) clearly marks this as a post-punk project, regardless of how much the droning choruses are reminiscent of shaggin’ sixties pop (sorry, I just saw Austin Powers: Man Of Adventure for the umpteenth time). Equal parts psychedelic droner and sludgy riff-based hard rocker, the darkly melodic, feedback-laced “Bag Full Of Thoughts” is probably the highlight from this promising 5 song EP, but fairly straightforward and enjoyably hard-hitting riff rockers like "Out For A Walk" and especially "My Own Planet" are in the running as well. These songs deliver noisy indie rock obviously influenced by punk, while the multi-sectioned "Scratchin' The Door" is more ambitious and sports an epic feel. The droney goth/psychedelic/hard rock of "Garden Of Eyes/Forever Is A Long Time" is too long and indulgent but has its moments as well, and though this mini-album was a bit rough around the edges, by and large these impressively raw and hard-rocking performances introduced a highly original new force to the alt-rock spectrum.

Hear It Is (Restless/Enigma ’86) Rating: B
Pared down to a three-piece (Wayne Coyne, vocals/guitar/primary songwriter/album designer; Michael Ivins, bass; Richard English, drums) and recorded in just two days with producer Randy Burns, the band's first full-length release boasts superior sound quality, a better singer, and an increased sophistication, though the overall end result is patchier as the band was not yet capable of rising above their influences (The Velvet Underground, Sonic Youth, The Beatles) for a full album's worth of material. On Hear It Is, the Flaming Lips prove capable of mellow lovelies as well as zonked out eruptions, sometimes within the same song, such as on the wonderful “With You,” which starts and ends the album, and they're into equal parts pop, punk, psychedelia, and metal as they bring forth some daringly original and exciting (if inconsistent) music. The previously mentioned “With You,” which features that old alt-rock staple, soft-to-loud dynamics, albeit done extremely effectively, is probably the album’s best song(s), but “Trains, Brains, and Rain” is also singable and melodic (I especially like the acoustic tones in the background and the catchy harmonized vocals, both elements going beyond what the band was capable of on The Flaming Lips), and “Godzilla Flick” is utterly gorgeous (again, I like the guitar lines in the background, as well as its nice steady beats). The music on this song is a far cry from the murky acid rock of the debut, while the song’s subject matter, supposedly about a bad drug trip by brother Mark Coyne, reveals a more serious side and demonstrates a darker edge than what is typically associated with the band. Elsewhere, the overly long (7:21) and quite druggy “Jesus Shootin’ Heroin” is also distinguishable by its soft to really loud dynamics and uncharacteristically dark and downcast lyrics like “I never did really understand religion, except it seemed a good reason to kill,” but the band’s sense of humor is also apparent on “Unplugged” (which isn’t), a chugging riff-based hard rocker about the band's druggie fans. The swirling atmospherics of “She Is Death” is also atypical if a bit boring, while “Staring At Sound,” which segues into the reprise of "With You" and is notable for its big whomping beat, is another enjoyably hard-hitting noise rocker. On the downside, though nothing this band does is quite ordinary, Hear It Is does contains several unremarkable Sonic Youth-influenced rockers ("Just Like Before," "Charlie Manson Blues," "Man From Pakistan"), but musically it nevertheless was a notable progression from their debut EP and it contains at least a couple ("With You," Godzilla Flick") of classic Lips songs.

Oh My Gawd!!!…The Flaming Lips (Restless/Enigma ’87) Rating: B+
More forward progress marred by inconsistency, as our favorite Oklahoma noisemongerers produce 11 more poppy yet punky tunes with a sloppy if enticing psychedelic touch. The highlights this time are obvious: "Everybody's Explodin'," “One Million Billioneth Of A Millisecond On A Sunday Morning” (Coyne has a knack for cool, albeit pretentious, song titles), and "Love Yer Brain," all of which tower over the rest of the album. "Everybody's Explodin'" is a simple but catchy garage rocker, as is the less impressive but still solid "Can't Stop The Spring." Twisting riffs and a big rumbling beat also mark the first half of "Prescription: Love," which then becomes a (better) catchy groover; it's a pity that it takes so long to get going, 'cause this song could've been great instead of merely really good. Alas, several other songs fail to reach even "good": "Maximum Dream For Evil Knievel" is loud and grating, "Ode To C.C. (Part 1)" is pointless if short (:45), and "Ode To C.C. (Part 2)" (yes, that's C.C. as in Poison's C.C. DeVille; don't ask) had potential but wasn't fully developed (it too clocks in at under 2 minutes). Elsewhere, "Can't Exist" and "Thanks To You," both written by English, feature nice mellow melodies but are somewhat naive and not particularly memorable, while Ruben Ayala's soft/loud production trickery on "The Ceiling Is Bendin'" makes the song interesting but also less than it could've been. Fortunately, “Love Yer Brain” is a pretty piano ballad that features Coyne's most affecting vocal to date; his cracked, high-pitched vocals are a fitting complement to the band’s cracked music, and the song ends the album perfectly by wrecking a poor piano alongside a sample of The Beatles’ “Tomorrow Never Knows.” But the album's masterpiece, and the band's best song to date, is the trippy jam track “One Million Billioneth Of A Millisecond On A Sunday Morning,” as, despite a melody that at times veers too close to Bob Seger's "Turn The Page," the song delivers expansive head music of the highest order. Both a great mood piece and an exciting, explosive rocker, what with its metallic riffs and huge beats later on, this song's slowly building 9+ minutes can be a patience tester but the epic rewards are well worth the band's indulgences. As for the album on the whole, the band are still searching for consistency, but most of the lesser tunes here have bits of inventiveness that bear up to repeated spins, and at their best this band comes up with truly exhilarating stuff. Fact is, though their raw sound can still come across as amateurish, in part due to time constraints as the album was recorded in a mere five days (three more than Hear It Is), melody reigns supreme on even their most “out there” compositions, which can be pretty darn out there. In summation, despite the admittedly terrible album title (somewhat made up for by Coyne's creative Salvador Dali inspired cover art), Oh My Gawd!!!…The Flaming Lips saw an evolving, ambitious band take additional baby steps towards finding that happy medium between weirdness and accessibility.

Telepathic Surgery (Restless/Enigma ’89) Rating: B-
But first they took a step back before taking several leaps forward, as Telepathic Surgery was the bands most deliberately difficult and least impressive album to date. At this point in their career, the band were a bunch of road warriors who had garnered a college radio following, and perhaps due to all the time spent touring, the band didn't really have enough songs written for this album, which sounds more like a collection of riffs and experimental ideas than a collection of songs. As such, despite the fact that the album has its fair share of good riffs and interesting ideas, my final impression is that this is an album that didn't really need to be made. Certainly the 23+ minute "Hell's Angels Cracker Factory" is exceedingly indulgent, and there are far too many generic noise rockers and uninspired jams. The spoken-word "U.F.O. Story" is instantly played out, though it's salvaged by its gorgeous piano coda, and elsewhere the album has its moments as well, such as the catchy garage rocker "Right Now" and the slower, more melodic epic "Chrome Plated Suicide," the album's best song. "Miracle On 42nd Street" and "Shaved Gorilla" have pretty guitars but don't live up to their potential, in large part due to Wayne's mumbled vocals, but "Begs And Achin'" ends the album on a more melodic, strong note. As for the rest of the album, it kinda blends together for me, as there's too much weirdness just for weirdness' sake (there's definitely a major Butthole Surfers influence at work) and far too few memorable songs to make this an album I'll return to often given the numerous better alternatives out there.

Finally, The Punk Rockers Are Taking Acid (Rykodisc/Restless ’02) Rating: B+
Forget about buying any of the above-mentioned albums. They're all hard to find these days, anyway, and this compilation collects those 3 1/2 albums and adds an additional album's worth of bonus tracks. The final tally is 4+ albums spread out over 3 cds, which is a handy way of gathering all of the Flaming Lips' early material in one place. As for the material not found on The Flaming Lips, Hear It Is, Oh My Gawd!!!…The Flaming Lips, or Telepathic Surgery, you get some solid ("Killer On The Radio," "Groove Room") and terrible ("Death Tripping At Sunrise") previously unreleased songs, quite a few fun but forgettable covers (the Batman theme, The Who's "Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere," Zep's "Communication Breakdown" and "Thank You," Sonic Youth's "Death Valley 69," Neil Young's "After The Gold Rush," and Richie Havens' "Handsome Johnny"), and several live and/or alternate versions, some recorded way back when Mark was the lead singer. In other words, the bonus tracks are likely to be at least mildly enjoyed by hardcore fans but should be easily skippable for anyone else. Then again, these albums in general are for hardcore fans, as the band didn't really hit their stride until their next album, by which time English was no longer with the band as they began their longtime association with producer Dave Fridmann. Still, though they were still finding their way, with Wayne often shouting rather than adopting the more reserved, child-like, high-pitched Neil Young-inspired vocal that would become the band's calling card as much as anything else, their early albums all have their exciting high points, and given that Finally, The Punk Rockers Are Taking Acid gives fans some genuine bang for their buck, I heartily recommend it to (only) said fans.

In A Priest Driven Ambulance (Restless/Enigma ’90) Rating: A
A few things happened for this record that enabled the band to make a major leap forward from previous releases. For one thing, new drummer Nathan Roberts is more professional and powerful than his predecessor. Secondly, this wildly inventive album features a second guitarist, Jonathan Donahue (who would later leave the band to form Mercury Rev), who gives the band a fuller, more richly textured sound and makes more complete their gloriously messy assault. Finally, then-unknown new producer Dave Fridmann (also of Mercury Rev and later a much sought-after producer) twiddles all the right studio buttons and liberates the band to "try anything." Of course, the biggest improvement is in the actual songs, which achieve a consistency and have an overall cohesiveness that none of their previous albums had. In many ways, the Flaming Lips run as a great band began in earnest with this album, the release of which was unfortunately delayed a year due to record company difficulties. The wait was well worth it, though, even if the band’s willfully sloppy psychedelic attack certainly isn’t for everyone. Still, I personally love the band’s big buzzing sound, and this is one of their best albums. It includes magnificent mellower yet still epic triumphs such as “Rainin’ Babies” and “Five Stop Mother Superior Rain,” plus the surprisingly straightforward, deeply affecting acoustic ballad “There You Are,” a trippy mood piece ("Stand In Line") notable for its cool psychedelic effects, and even a wonderfully Lipped-out version of Louis Armstrong's “What A Wonderful World.” Buoyed by a cover of Neil Young's "After The Gold Rush" on the benefit album The Bridge, from here on in Wayne decides to adopt Neil's high register (often off-key) vocal style, resulting in a vulnerability to Wayne's vocals that previously had only appeared occasionally. Of course, remembering their hard rocking roots, the ballads are placed between a barrage of chaotic but catchy space trips such as the superlatively poppy but still strange and rocking “Shine On Sweet Jesus - Jesus Song No. 5,” the exciting if headache inducing psychedelic stomper “God Walks Among Us Now - Jesus Song No. 6,” and the strong if overly long riff rocker “Mountain Side.” The lurching “Unquestionably Screaming” is another loud but melodic album highlight, and on the whole this was easily the band’s most consistent and best album yet, with only the forgettable Can ripoff "Take Me Ta Mars" approaching filler status. All in all, the group’s vast sound and skewed sense of humor makes for an oddly satisfying mix, as this spacey quartet once again resolutely pursued their own uniquely distorted vision. Even when the lyrics are centered around religious imagery, which is often as you can tell by the song titles, they’re often quite creative and rarely heavy-handed, as above all else this band delivers pure feel good fun. Warner Bros. agreed, too, since the band got their just rewards with a major label contract, ending years of struggle and undeserved semi-obscurity. It didn’t hurt that the band went with more concise songs this time out and were now leaning less towards punk and more towards pop, which made them more palatable for mass consumption.

Hit To Death In The Future Head (Warner Bros. ’91) Rating: A-
The Flaming Lips major label debut features major label production, and in all honesty it seems to me like the boys were let loose in the candy store a little bit, as they add layers upon layers of sound, as well as instrumental flourishes such as strings, trumpets, and the like. Still, despite the overstuffed sound and a couple of slow, unmemorable drone ballads too many, by and large these ten slices of warped psychedelic pop are still mighty entertaining, and the album has some real standouts. For example, “Talkin’ Bout The Smiling Deathporn Immortality Blues (Everyone Wants To Live Forever)” begins the album with a fun, over the top rocker (with an over the top title!) notable for its driving, distorted riffs, its catchy “everybody wants to live forever” chorus, and Ivins’ megaphone-enhanced backing vocals. Just as good if not better is “Hit Me Like You Did The First Time,” whose cool fuzzy riffs anchor arguably their most perfectly realized pop melody yet. Other obvious highlights are “Halloween On The Barbary Coast,” another magnificent mellower epic with a vast sound, and "Frogs," which effortlessly evolves into a gloriously poppy sing along, with Wayne’s typically clever story-based lyrics serving as an added enticement. The rest of the songs are less successful, though most are still enjoyable despite their flaws. Among the best of the rest, “The Sun” features a slow, simple melody buttressed by Revolver-ish psychedelic accoutrements, "Gingerale Afternoon (The Astrology of a Saturday)" features good galloping grooves and a rare lead vocal from Donahue, whose vocals here lack Wayne’s charisma and are buried too low in the mix, anyway, while “The Magician Vs. The Headache” is a loud, fast-paced, groovy riff rocker on which Ivins’ megaphone backing vocals reappear. Elsewhere, "Felt Good To Burn" and "Hold Your Head" drone on by with trippy atmospherics but don’t offer much compositionally, but "You Have To Be Joking (Autopsy of the Devil's Brain)" is better, being a slow, string-saturated ballad that’s quite pretty. The strings were sampled from Michael Kamen’s score to Terry Gilliam’s film Brazil, causing the band much trouble when a recent law was passed making sampling without first obtaining permission a potentially expensive proposition; they eventually got clearance but it took many months. Frustrated by waiting around, and dissatisfied by the band’s increasingly artsy direction, Roberts left the Lips. Encouraged by the increasingly alternative-friendly market in a post-Nevermind world, Donahue left as well to helm his own band, Mercury Rev. When it was finally released, despite the fact that by and large these talented weirdos weighed in with another winner, Hit To Death In The Future Head was a commercial disappointment; as a result, many in the Flaming Lips camp saw their next release as a make or break proposition. Complaint: The 29-minute "bonus track" is incredibly annoying and should be avoided at all costs.

Transmissions From The Satellite Heart (Warner Bros. ‘93) Rating: A
With their backs pinned against the wall, the Flaming Lips came through big time. The first thing they did was introduce two new members, Steven Drozd (drums) and Ronald Jones (guitar), who were far and away the best musicians Coyne and Ivins had ever played with. In addition to being an excellent drummer, Drozd was a skilled multi-instrumentalist who could play damn near anything, plus he added another excellent songwriter to the band's ranks. For his part, Jones was a virtuoso who always added that little bit extra to make a song special, and it was in large part due to their contributions that this album, which was produced by Keith Cleversley (Fridmann was a victim of the friction caused by Donahue’s departure, both within the band and their none-too-pleased record label), featured the band’s biggest beats and coolest guitar sounds yet. The most conventional, poppiest, and quite simply best Lips album to date, if you can’t hum along to ultra-catchy anthems such as “Turn It On” and “Be My Head” then I suggest that you consult your local doctor, because you’re tone deaf, my friend. Seriously, if those two songs don't put a bounce in your step, give you the urge to sing along, and make you feel good, then I feel sorry for you. Yes, they're that good, and the rest of Transmissions From The Satellite Heart is also a noticeable progression from past efforts, since more accessible songwriting was the only logical way left for the band to go. As such, though the organized chaos that is the band’s calling card is still very much in evidence (don't worry, there are still plenty of distorted guitars buzzing about in the background), they’ve integrated an even truer sense of melody within these 11 songs. Captivating vocal harmonies enhance songs such as "Pilot Can at the Queer of God," which also features lurching rhythms and riffs all over the place, while Steven Drozd's big beat meshes well with the careening guitars and carnival-esque atmosphere of the hooky "Moth In The Incubator," which is really three songs in one as the band's creativity was in full flower. Even moodier, dirge-like tunes such as "Oh My Pregnant Head" and "Slow-Nerve Action" are far from depressing, though neither is among the album's most impressive songs. They are good, though, and only "Plastic Jesus" (also known as "*******") could be called "filler"; even that one works well enough as a not at all unpleasant little diversion whose running time is a scant 2:18 (p.s. apparently this is actually a cover song of a tune that appeared in the classic Paul Newman movie Cool Hand Luke). Elsewhere, the gorgeous "Chewin The Apple Of Your Eye" exudes a child-like sense of wonder and features one of Wayne's most affecting vocal performances, while the more epic "Superhumans" has swirling guitars seemingly everywhere, though the atmospheric end result is still eminently musical and rocking. In short, this album sees the Flaming Lips at their most tuneful and focused, and back in 1993 their joyously upbeat sound - which was still plenty weird and noisy despite the increased accessibility - came as a nice contrast to the rage of grunge. The beautifully melodic and whimsically charming "She Don't Use Jelly" (which the band played on the hit TV series Beverly Hills 90210!) even became a fluke albeit deserving hit, and after almost a decade of making consistently imaginative albums the Flaming Lips finally had a minor hit on their hands.

Clouds Taste Metallic (Warner Bros. ‘95) Rating: A-
The Lips are getting more "normal" as the years go by, with purer pop tendencies becoming a bigger element of, but not totally replacing, their bent sonic explorations. Although they’re still plenty weird, the band has grown more accomplished and professional. Perhaps these qualities make them a little less otherworldly and exciting than on earlier releases, but the band's consistently strong songwriting and superior production (Fridmann is back behind the control board) should bring a smile to your face. The band’s most consistent album to date, at this point they seem incapable of writing a bad song, and their dense, layered sound is still ragged enough (it’s just no longer amateurish), with a healthy coating of sugary pop harmonies atop static-y soundscapes. This joyous pop record is naggingly upbeat, perhaps too much so at times if you're not in the right mood, as whimsical trifles such as “This Here Giraffe” and “Christmas At The Zoo,” (definitely an animal motif going on there) are too silly and twee to be taken seriously, though both still manage to deliver pretty, catchy sing songy melodies that eventually won me over. Still, though I can see why this is many people’s favorite Lips album, the mostly mid-tempo material here sounds a tad too mellow and restrained to me, as the band seem more interested in cramming their songs with as many sonic details as possible (a la Brian Wilson) than in recklessly rocking out. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, this being a pop album and all, but though I appreciate the band’s lush, often-luxuriant sound, I think that the overall balance between rock and pop was a bit better on Transmissions. That said, this is a really good album, certainly one of the band’s best, as their song titles alone (example: “Psychiatric Explorations Of The Fetus With Needles”) illustrate that these guys still have plenty of surprises in store, and they have an instantly appealing sound. Just try to deny the singable pop charms of “Placebo Headwound,” on which Wayne’s questioning lyrics evoke a child-like sense of wonder, "Brainville," whose carnival-esque melody could easily be dismissed as novelty were it not so catchy and ingratiating, or the beautifully trippy "They Punctured My Yolk"; I bet that you can't. Elsewhere, “Evil Will Prevail” is an atypical darker entry, at least lyrically, but “Bad Days” then ends the album on another upbeat note – with another winning pop melody. “Guy Who Got A Headache And Accidentally Saved The World” and "Kim's Watermelon Gun" are harder rocking highlights, but whether belting out a scratchy ballad, blasting a feedback-fueled anthem, or both, these guys seem to have an endless capacity for cranking out creative material, making them one of the most enjoyable if overlooked bands of the past decade. Unfortunately, Clouds lacked a fluke hit a la “She Don’t Use Jelly” and the album was a comparative commercial failure, and things got worse when Jones then left the Lips due to friction with the rest of the band, particularly Drozd, who had become a drug addict. Thus ended the Lips’ best lineup after an all too brief run, but as before, the band would gamely continue, with Drozd handling the bulk of the guitar parts in the studio from now on.

Zaireeka (Warner Bros. ’97) Rating: Incomplete
The latter part of the ‘90s saw The Flaming Lips at their most experimental, both live with the Parking Lot and Boom Box Experiments (the details of which I won’t get into ‘cause you had to have been there and I wasn’t), and in the studio with Zaireeka. And though I can only shake my head in admiration at the band’s attempt to construct the most ambitious album ever, I wasn’t about to go out and buy the 4 cd players necessary to spin the 4 discs of Zaireeka simultaneously. Courtesy of a friend, I did manage to get my hands on a single stereo mixdown, but since supposedly you need the 4 cd players – all preferably placed at a different corner of a single room and started at the same time - to fully appreciate the album, I’m going to reserve judgment for the time being (hence the incomplete rating above). Of course, from a conceptual standpoint, the brilliance of this album is that four people will never simultaneously press play at the exact same time, and the settings of each cd player will never be exactly the same, so you get a uniquely different listening experience every single time. One that you, the listener, get to actively control – why don’t we turn the volume on disc one way up, the bass on disc two way down, etc. - which was another unique concept that hasn’t been repeated before or since. So, to say that this album is singular or original is an understatement; there’s nothing even remotely like it, and maybe there never will be. So, I’d be remiss if I didn’t at least mention this one-of-a-kind album, whose slow-paced, lush, detailed (but of course; otherwise what would be the point?) music pointed the way to the more normal follow-up, The Soft Bulletin. It’s just that I haven’t heard this album the “right way” yet, so I don’t feel qualified to review it, though I will say that even listening to the album the “wrong way” via the stereo mixdown is surprisingly enjoyable, as I can still appreciate the pretty, luxuriant sounds swirling about, even if it’s obvious that this isn’t the band’s best batch of tunes, as the songwriting likely took a backseat while the band (with Fridmann, of course) figured out the presentation possibilities. If nothing else, the album got all the “weirdness” out of their (and their fans’ – the album sold surprisingly well for a box set) system, paving the way for a more long-lasting form of commercial success not fueled by fluke singles or revolutionary concepts.

The Soft Bulletin (Warner Bros. ’99) Rating: A
Although I’d argue that the many critics who claimed that the Flaming Lips had “arrived” with this much praised album simply hadn’t been paying attention to this most innovative of bands, I can see why this album is often singled out as the band’s “masterpiece.” Getting rid of their distortion pedals and no longer hiding behind walls of feedback, this ambitious album saw the band attempting to be taken as "serious artists." Though Coyne’s oddly endearing if somewhat spaced out lyrics can lapse into sentimentality, and his fragile, high-pitched vocals still definitely fall into the “acquired taste” category, these are Coyne’s most thoughtful, personal, and flat-out best batch of lyrics to date, and he sings with such a heartfelt sincerity that I for one can easily forgive his inability to sing on key. As for the music, there’s no denying the sheer beauty of these languidly paced, impeccably lush keyboard and string-led (with an increased use of electronics; the strings are mostly synthetic) melodies, which, taken together, form a more cohesive whole than any of the band’s previous albums to date and which had fans and critics alike calling The Soft Bulletin “a Pet Sounds for the ‘90s.” Indeed, boosted by Dave Fridmann's ornate production, Coyne and company finally delivered their fully-fledged pop album, which was the logical, necessary next step in the band’s ongoing evolution. Simply put, these painstakingly constructed pop symphonies are unlike anything else in the Lips canon (perhaps excepting Zaireeka, oddly enough), and though the album is a little slow going at times, with few if any of these songs “rocking out” even slightly (though Drozd’s trademark big beat is sometimes present), the album’s overall air of melancholy is what one remembers best. That said, there are some excellent individual songs as well, the most obvious ones being “Race For The Prize,” and “Waitin’ For A Superman,” both of which are included twice, including two remixes by Peter Mokran that became U.K. hits. Elsewhere, “A Spoonful Weighs A Ton” is gorgeously affecting, “The Spark That Bled” is low-key yet epic in spots, “The Spiderbite Song” is Coyne’s moving ode to his other band mates (it recounts life-threatening incidents that both Ivins and Drozd had recently encountered), “Suddenly Everything Has Changed” was easy for everyone to relate to post Oklahoma City (and later, 9/11), and “Feeling Yourself Disintegrate” is stunningly sad, its cosmic music firmly rooted in real human emotions. As you can probably tell, there’s a gravity to Coyne’s lyrics previously only hinted at, but (unsurprisingly given the bands track record) this is ultimately an optimistic album, one that would prove to be highly influential as subsequent bands such as Grandaddy and the Polyphonic Spree would seek to capture the lushly orchestrated electronic folk pop perfected on The Soft Bulletin. On this deeply moving album, the Lips traded in their youthful excitement for a more mature sophistication, the end result of which was easily the band’s prettiest if not exactly their most exciting record yet, and it appealed to a wider audience that was finally ready to fully embrace the band’s audacious sound tapestries.

Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots (Warner Bros. '02) Rating: A-
After years as an underground guitar band known for their innovative brand of feedback fueled psychedelic pop, The Soft Bulletin saw the Flaming Lips cleaning up and softening their sound. Critics and fans embraced the album with far more acclaim and fanfare than any of their previous albums, so it’s not surprising that Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots continues with the cleaner pop style of The Soft Bulletin, only adding even more electronic elements and embracing a sci-fi storyline. The album starts strong with “Fight Test,” and when Wayne Coyne (singing more on pitch and better than ever) sings “it’s all a mystery,” it’s hard not to get swept up in his wide-eyed wonder. Equally important is its message that (according to Coyne) ‘to surrender to conflict without a challenge is worse than getting beat up.” Fortunately, the album’s protagonist, Yoshimi, takes this advice to heart, as she’s determined to win her uphill battle against the evil robots of a futuristic society. Her mission is made easier by a robot improbably falling in love with her (“One More Robot/Sympathy 3000-21”), and the storyline then climaxes on “Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots Pt. 1,” a catchy, sing along pop song, and “Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots Pt. 2,” an instrumental oddity on which Yoshimi emerges triumphant amid clattering electronic effects and Drozd’s big beat. Drozd’s customary drum wallop is absent on almost all the other songs, none of which are about Yoshimi (the storyline thus ending after four songs!), but many of which are about life and death. For example, “In The Morning Of The Magicians” is a beautifully questioning ballad (the question being “what is love?”), and “Ego Tripping At The Gates Of Hell” provides a gorgeously dreamy lecture to enjoy all that life has to offer. “All We Have Is Now” likewise advises listeners to live for today alongside a lovely melody, while “It’s Summertime,” which was written as a song of encouragement to grieving sisters of a Japanese girl who suddenly died, is (unsurprisingly) a pretty summertime song about appreciating life’s simple pleasures. “Are You A Hypnotist??” is pretty and hooky as well, but the album climaxes with the impossibly moving (if also overly question marked) “Do You Realize??,” which acknowledges what a precarious existence we all lead with devastating lines like “do you realize that everyone you know someday will die?” Finally, “Approaching Pavonis Mons By Balloon (Utopia Planitia)” provides (to quote Coyne) a “serene and exultant” ending to this consistently creative and enjoyable album. Uplifting and sad, absurdly playful and deadly serious, but above all else beautiful, Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots is an album that rewards repeat plays and a good set of headphones, the better to appreciate the album’s layered electronic textures. Yet for all its synthetic sounds this is a very warm and resonant album that touches on real human emotions (even when experienced by robots!). Granted, there are times when I personally miss the go for broke sense of excitement of the band’s more rocking and amateurish earlier works, and I also feel that, as was the case with The Soft Bulletin, some of these songs can be overly sentimental and corny at times. Still, though it's a tad less impressive than its predecessor, which seemed like something totally new (we'll ignore the similarities to Mercury Rev's Deserter's Songs since it was started well before that album, even if it was released afterwards) whereas this album was merely a continuation (and an expansion) of the sound first introduced on that album, by and large these 11 sumptuous melodies are easy to get lost within, and any excitement that's sacrificed is made up for by the band’s attractive sound sculpting and their increasingly hard won wisdom. It became the band’s biggest seller to date, too, in large part because of the band’s increased profile touring with Beck, with whom they served as his opening act (introducing an eye-poppingly visual, highly theatrical stage show) and backing band. Alas, there was a downside to the band’s increased profile, as Yusuf Islam (ex-Cat Stevens) opportunistically sued the band for “Fight Test” ripping off “Father And Son” (Islam received 75% of the song's royalties).

At War With The Mystics (Warner Bros. '06) Rating: B
After a long 4-year absence, during which the band released their own homemade movie Christmas On Mars and several other “for diehard fans only” releases (Drozd also thankfully got clean during this period), came At War With The Mystics, the first truly disappointing Flaming Lips album in some time. For the first time, Fridmann’s overly processed production overwhelms the songs, which aren’t among the band’s best, anyway. Although there are more guitars (which had really taken a backseat since Jones’ departure) and live drums than on recent efforts, both positive developments, there are too many blips and bleeps, or bells and whistles, and not enough in the way of memorable songs. Also, the album is poorly sequenced, with several moody mellower efforts (most of which are solid if not up to lofty Soft Bulletin/Yoshimi standards) placed one after another smack in the middle of the album, and Coyne’s increasingly political lyrics are at times lazy (such as easy cheap shots at pop tarts like Britney Spears on “The Sound Of Failure”) or even cringe inducing (“you think you’re radical, but you’re not radical, in fact you’re fanatical”). The latter lyric comes from “Free Radicals,” which along with the better but still too cutsey “It Overtakes Me” brings Prince to mind, while the “The Yeah Yeah Yeah Song” starts the album off with an extremely eccentric but sometimes brilliantly off the wall glam rocker. When it comes right down to it, I guess that inconsistent songwriting and its stylistic messiness are this album’s primary problems, plus there’s the actively annoying “Haven’t Got A Clue,” which I flat-out dislike; it’s been awhile since these guys made me search for the fast forward button. Fortunately, the Flaming Lips are too good a band to release a stinker, and At War With The Mystics has some good stuff as well. My favorite song is probably “Mr. Ambulance Driver,” whose melodic electro-beat sounds like something that The Postal Service might do, and though “The W.A.N.D.” promises more than it actually delivers, it’s still one of the better songs on the album and it’s good to see The Flaming Lips attempt to rock out again. Finally, the spacey, ambient “Pompeii am Götterdämmerung” rips off Pink Floyd (to call them big Pink Floyd fans is an understatement) but in a totally attractive way, while “Goin’ On” is a pretty, simple, stripped-down ballad which shows that the band are still capable of standing on their own without all the elaborate production tricks. Anyway, I suppose a letdown was inevitable given the Lips' long run of excellence, but they do sound a bit bloated and directionless on At War With The Mystics (sorry, but funk and disco aren’t especially welcome new additions to the band’s sound, since they do neither especially well), making me wonder which way they’ll go from here, and whether or not the band have slid past their prime.

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