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"Sure it seems easy now but I tell you what - we were perplexed finding the needle in the needle's disguise"

Class C

Main Category: Pop Rock
Also applicable: Lush Pop, Art Rock, Punk/Grunge
Starting Period: The Divided Eighties
Also active in: From Grunge To The Present Day



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It's pretty hard to discuss The Flaming Lips without reverting to the old topic of whether rock music is dead and if it isn't, is it progressing, and if it is, are The Flaming Lips one of its main vehicles. But before succumbing to this temptation, let's briefly inspect who the Flaming Lips are and what the heck are they doing.

The Flaming Lips, at least, the founding fathers of the Lips, come from Oklahoma. Now, I'm no big connoisseur of the American "province", but Oklahoma sure is a strange place to produce a bunch of saviours of rock'n'roll. Then again, Robert Zimmerman came from Minnesota, which is hardly any less weird. Anyway, coming from Oklahoma and happening to be a few inches smarter than oh so many of their contemporaries, the Flaming Lips at first happened to go the traditional indie route: adopting the do-it-yourself philosophy, musically rebelling against commercial trends, and sticking to a small indie label making records that were adventurous and uncompromising, but, as a side effect, shittily produced, shittily recorded, and underwritten.

Somewhere around 1990, however, bandleader Wayne Coyne probably realized that it was way too boring and unrewarding to stick with the same shittily recorded crap for God knows how long, and starting from that moment of enlightenment, the Flaming Lips began to grow and mature at an astonishing rate. They teamed up with professional, inventive, and intelligent musicians; somehow managed to hook up with Warner Bros., thus gaining access to much better production technologies; improved their songwriting; started venturing into various genres and styles; conducted all kinds of experimentation, including wildly original ideas about different ways music can be listened to; allowed themselves to become pretentious; and, instead of following the indie route, preferred to grab a bunch of much older influences and update them for the Nineties.

Indeed, development is the key word when you're talking about the Lips. Their main (although far from the only) influence, as banal as it may sound, were The Beatles; and where so many other bands, also influenced by the Fab Four, preferred to grab one or two elements of their sound and build their entire career on it, the Lips were smart enough to understand that the key to the Beatles' greatness was their constant, ever quickening evolution. This is why no Lips album since 1990 sounds like a copy of its predecessor; each succeeding album builds on the legacy of what came before it, just like with every Beatles album you can always tell which elements are carried over from the past and which ones are entirely new. This is why I have yet to see a Nineties band that would, on one hand, be as prolific as the Lips (who managed to release six albums over ten years despite a huge number of personal and other problems - no mean feat for an epoch where intervals of two or three years between releases are considered the norm), on the other hand, as diverse and evolving as the Lips.

Alas, for all their dazzling activity, the Lips have encountered a staggeringly low level of commercial success. The totally fluke hit they had in 1993 with the novelty number 'She Don't Use Jelly' was rather important in that it solidified their status for Warner Bros. and assured them enough artistic freedom - who knows, if not for that tiny bit of success, they might have gotten their asses kicked a long time ago, and the world would have never had the chance to experience Zaireeka. However, apart from that, their sales and exposure have always been minimal, despite their getting more and more 'user-friendly' and generally accessible with each passing year. One of the reasons is that they are an American band playing distinctly British-oriented music; were they primarily targeted towards the European market, I don't think their fate would have been any worse than that of bands like Blur or Radiohead, to whom they are certainly comparable in terms of talent and artistic integrity. In the States, though, the Lips were always somewhat out of tune with the surroundings, never toying much with alt-rock or grunge values and defiantly going against the grain.

All this means that the Lips will probably be given their real due sometime in the future - when the current musical paradigm, one that hasn't been evolving much for almost fifteen years now, finally shifts and gives way to a new breed of music-makers. In the meantime, they're simply being busy protecting the last bastions of music that hasn't yet been corrupted by either reckless, soulless commercialism or equally reckless, soulless scepticism and nihilism. The Flaming Lips are weird; they use weird sounds, weird lyrics, and weird (and loooong) song titles. But, unlike in so many superficially similar cases, their weirdness is practically always balanced by their (or maybe I should rather say his - although many people are responsible for the collective Lips sound, it is Wayne Coyne's artistic vision that the music primarily reflects, and nobody else's) massive idealism.

I don't mean to say that Coyne always looks at the world through rose-coloured glasses - far from it; the idealism I'm speaking of is always mixed with sadness, and the sadness naturally arises from seeing the world exactly as it is. There is a song on one of the band's best albums called 'Christmas At The Zoo'... remember it? The one where Wayne sings about how he opens all the cages but the animals refuse to leave? That song, in a nutshell, summarizes both the Lips' artistic philosophy and their actual fate. The Lips offer the world good music, and they also offer the world something which they honestly believe might make it better, just like all the smelly hippies used to thirty years ago. But the world pretty much closes its eyes on the Lips. The world wants to learn stuff from Nickelback instead.

Meaning that here comes the answer: are The Flaming Lips gonna save rock'n'roll? The answer is - no, because rock'n'roll doesn't want to be saved. It wants to die. And for more than ten years now, the Flaming Lips have been lamenting that fact in dozens of gorgeous ways. The good news is that they still keep doing this, and manage to remain relevant and sincere. I cannot honestly say that I am extremely pleased with their post-Jones line of evolution: having lost one of their major pillars of guitar-oriented creativity, the Lips turned out to be in danger of becoming too big for their britches, and their three latest projects have all, in different ways, threatened to crumble under their ambitions - Zaireeka through assuming too much about the audience's tolerance for "unusual" music presentation forms; The Soft Bulletin through wishing too much to one-up Pet Sounds; and Yoshimi through placing too much on mood and ambience at the expense of captivating melodies. The last album, in particular, is a clear sign that these boys need to get back to the 'roots' before electronica and elevator elements get the best of them. But even during these risky experiments, walking on the brink of glory and collapse, Coyne's artistic identity, his feelings, his pain, and his ultimately religious attitude to music shine through loud and bright.

The Lips have their limitations, of course, like everybody else. Being steeped in indie values from the beginning, none of the players were virtuosos; their strength has alwyas been composing rather than performing. And for all their explorations and investigations, there's a surprisingly limited amount of ideas (textures, patterns, etc.) which they can truly lay a claim on; apart from the technical approach of Zaireeka, they have been restoring stuff rather than pioneering it. That said, even if their early records often share the sin of borrowing or directly stealing others' ideas, later on they made it a point to seriously double-check every melody on the subject of "rip-off". There's plenty of stuff in their catalog that sounds just like the Beach Boys, or just like Pink Floyd, or just like John Lennon, but nevertheless is not stolen from any particular location. And as for virtuosity, whatever they lack in the finger-training department, they more than make up for it in the production department; their latest records, in particular, boast such rich, luxurious, colourful production as can be demonstrated by few other now living artists.

Understandably, it should be kept in mind that the Lips are very different at different periods in their career. I would make three main subdivisions: a) the "pre-fame" period of 1985-89, recommended mostly for diehard fans and historians of indie-rock; b) the guitar-pop period of 1990-95, heavily recommended for every fan of power-pop, psychedelic rock, or just plain old rock'n'roll if you're not scared of thick, bombastic production; c) the "post-guitar" period of 1997-2002, most heavily recommended for fans of art- and prog-rock and those who like their music serious and strict rather than naive and playful, even if there's plenty of overlap between the two even in the two last periods. Who knows - maybe in a few years I'll have to institute a d) point as well? I'd like to.

Lineup: Wayne Coyne - guitar, vocals; Mark Coyne - vocals; Michael Ivins - bass; Richard English - drums. Mark Coyne quit, 1985; band carried on as a trio. English quit, 1988, replaced by Nathan Roberts; Jonathan Donahue, co-founder of Mercury Rev and the Lips' sound technician since the late Eighties, became a full member (guitars) in 1990. Donahue and Roberts quit, 1992, replaced by Ronald Jones (guitars, all kinds of creativity) and Steven Drozd (drums, all kinds of creativity). Jones left, 1996; band remains a trio to this day.



Year Of Release: 1985

Record rating = 7
Overall rating = 10

Too small to be better than it is, but hey, if you're gonna rip off '67 garage-psychedelia, it ain't gotta be long.


Track listing: 1) Bag Full Of Thoughts; 2) Out For A Walk; 3) Scratching The Door; 4) Garden Of Eyes/Forever Is A Long Time; 5) My Own Planet.

'Tis but a five-song EP, but it's about as long as an early Beach Boys LP anyway, and besides, is an extremely important link in describing the Lips' long journey to the Indie Hall of Anti-Fame, so I might as well grant it a full-fledged review. Now for the most part, people know this as the only Flaming Lips album to actually feature not one Coyne, but two of them: brother Mark functions as vocalist here, why - I have no idea, because everybody and their pet hamster agree upon the fact that he can't really sing. I guess it's all in the family, or was, until they took a good listen to the final results and decided that working as a trio would be more productive and economically sound.

Apart from that, the most interesting thing about this self-titled EP is that I had it mixed with some of the Nuggets II (i.e. UK mid-60s psychedelic garage) tracks in my playlist, and I honestly could not tell the difference. Mind you, I said Nuggets II, not any of the psychedelic biggies from the era like Pink Floyd or Arthur Brown: at this point, the Flaming Lips lacked both the financial means and the working experience to make anything really "crafted", and besides, they didn't want to make anything 'crafted'. This was supposed to sound rough'n'crude, but with an obvious acid-rock tinge. In other words, like Nuggets II. And it does. I honestly can't tell the difference.

Now the big question is, of course: why the heck should we listen to a bunch of indie kids imitating their mid-60s idols instead of listening to the real thing? And the answer is, why, we have absolutely no obligation to do that. But if you likes youself some o' dese Nuggets an' you wants youself some more, The Flaming Lips is a perfectly acceptable source. (Apart from 'My Own Planet', which really owes more to the Ramones than to anybody from the 60s, I guess). And they are long songs! Unlike in the 60s, these guys weren't bound by the time format, which is both a blessing and a curse (say what you will, but 'Scratching The Door' does not need to have two extra fade-outs).

'Bag Full Of Thoughts' opens the proceedings on a properly anthemic note. No tribute to the Great Psychedelic Masters of old can do without a suitable mind-opening anthem extolling the pleasures of a life corrupted by pot and acid, and the Coyne brothers (not to be confused with the Cohen brothers, whose tribute to the Great Psychedelic Masters of old is pretty much confined to the "dream bowling" scene in The Big Lebowski) are only too happy to oblige, with Wayne throwing in a psychedelic guitar solo like he'd freshly graduated from a band like Tomorrow or something like that. And if it goes on for what seems like an eternity, why should we care? We're too busy tripping out.

Oh, there is one particularly short song on here - the three-minute long 'Out For A Walk', which happens to start quite deceptively, with a flash bit of the Marseillaise - or was that a flash bit of 'All You Need Is Love'? - before switching into garage-rock mode with a lot of phasing going on. Mark Coyne's singing is particularly bland [dumb?] on this song, and while they try to mask it by putting lots of echo effects on it, like all good flower children do, this still means that you'll be paying more attention to the astral-minded guitar/bass interplay on the song than to the vocal melody.

'Scratching The Door' is a blast. A seven-minute blast, to be sure. Lyrically, it seems to be about not being able to get any, but musically, it's their take on 'Interstellar Overdrive', only about five billion times more simplistic. The main riff is fine, but the "splurging" time-marking sound that sounds like something in between a bass guitar and a bass drum (maybe it's the latter being punched by the former) starts to get on my nerves after a couple minutes, and when they start machine-gunning the audience with it in the mid-section, it walks the line between novelty, annoyance, genius, and killing time. And, like I said, whoever thought the song needed two fadeouts obviously had a lot of growing up to do. What is this, 'Helter Skelter'? 'In Every Dream Home A Heartache'?

Much, much, much better is 'Garden Of Eyes/Forever Is A Long Time'. Where the previous three songs sounded cool and had moments of talent shining through, I'd say that only 'Forever Is A Long Time' ('Garden Of Eyes' is basically just a forgettable instrumental introduction) displays any true signs of original melody-writing. Again, Mark Coyne's singing could be occasionally mistaken for the sound of the voice of a very bored gentleman who, for some unclear reason, has decided to read the morning papers aloud to everybody in the room, but the vocal melody is still great, particularly at the moment of transition from the first part of the chorus to the second one, when the melody actually soars up to the stars, ditching the monotonousness of the other songs and showing they really understand what makes up great psychedelia (well, "used to make up great psychedelia", I guess).

And then we close with 'My Own Planet', which is basically a rewrite of some old (or new?) Ramones song, bass, drums, and chainsaw buzz all present, only Mark Coyne ain't no Joey Ramone, but the song is still swell because it's fun to sing 'I want my own planet/'Cause this one here's such a drag' along with these guys. Naive, certainly, but pretty honest at least, and once again, the lyrics actually sound like they come from the 'we gotta get out of this place' age of the 60s rather than the hardcore punk epoch. This makes me glad.

In retrospect, this EP is, of course, little more than a historical curio, but it's certainly nothing to be ashamed of. It's one thing to do a good imitation, and another thing to do a ridiculous one. I'd bet my hat, personally (provided I had one) that you could mix any of these four songs inside Nuggets II and nobody'd notice - and that's one sure sign of quality. The Lips would move on to bigger and better things pretty soon, but this is where it all started, kids. Remember: it all stems from the Sixties. Now be good lads and go stock up on Pink Floyd, Hendrix, and Move records.



Year Of Release: 1986

Record rating = 7
Overall rating = 10

Can I say something stupid? Like "this is indie without an edge"? (And no, that ain't dialectal for "redskin without a tomahawk").

Best song: WITH YOU

Track listing: 1) With You; 2) Unplugged; 3) Trains, Brains And Rain; 4) Jesus Shootin' Heroin; 5) Just Like Before; 6) She Is Death; 7) Charlie Manson Blues; 8) Man From Pakistan; 9) Godzilla Flick; 10) Staring At Sound/With You (reprise); [BONUS TRACK:] 11) Summertime Blues.

Actually, before everything everything else I'd like to reinstate some historic justice. Whenever I see people speaking about 'Jesus Shootin' Heroin', they invariably quote the first lines of that song, you know the ones I'm talking about: 'I never really understood religion/Except it seems a good reason to kill'. Like, wow, man, that's a cool lyric. You know what? It is a cool lyric, BUT it is nothing but a direct quotation from a song by the long (and unjustly) forgotten band Ten Years After, conveniently called 'Religion', recorded on their Rock'n'Roll Music To The World album as early as 1972, and Wayne Coyne has nothing to di with it. Given the fact that within the same song he also gives direct lyrical quotations from the Rolling Stones' 'Heartbreaker', I'd think this could have raised suspicion - but it didn't, and now I'm here to let you know the truth. In fact, I have a deep-running suspicion that the entire 'Jesus Shootin' Heroin' just strings together large bunches of unconnected, but rhythmically soundalike quotations from songs past and present in a gloriously postmodern fashion, but that idea I have not checked out yet. Maybe Google can help?

Now back to business. The Flaming Lips are a trio now, having wisely liberated themselves of extra ballast (Mark Coyne and his non-singing voice); they're still pushing the same roughly recorded lo-fi indie stuff on us, but this time with the benefit of a larger album format and a different stylistic approach. At this point, they still had a long way to go, and I wouldn't say that Hear It Is displays any real creative growth. In fact, in some way it is actually a step back from the near-impeccable 60s garage emulation as they now move into much more boring generic indie-rock territory (and I will always take emulations of generic psychedelic garage over real generic indie rock, thank you very much. Yes, that's the inner 60s snob in me. Don't say you've never met before). The six distorted rockers on this album not only sound the same, they sound the same as everybody else - loud fast guitars and a screeching guy, although at least he never takes himself as seriously as Eddie Vedder. And sometimes it just doesn't work at all, especially when they turn in something as murkily riff-less as 'Man From Pakistan', a waste of tape if there ever was one.

At other times, thankfully, the riffs are good. 'Just Like Before', for instance, is much too sophisticated for generic grunge and too subtle for generic metal, and the guitar and bass manage to lock in a way that really impresses me - chaotic and fully controlled at the same time, like on a Who classic (but actually sounds nothing like the Who - way too poisonously violent for Pete Townshend's idealistic "music as the cure" approach). On the other hand, 'Charlie Manson Blues' has a riff that reminds me of Floyd's 'Lucifer Sam', and the ironic title perfectly matches the cartoonishly aggressive music (check out the hilarious Orc-like "hoo-ha-hoo-ha-hoo-ha!" war chanting in the chorus to see what I mean). On 'Trains, Brains, And Rain' they use the formerly-glam idea of putting a fat acoustic background under (over?) the rocking electric foreground and once again come up with a minor pseudo-psychedelic "classic". And while the misleadingly titled 'Unplugged' is nothing but ordinary dark rock'n'roll in terms of atmosphere, it also got an extremely memorable melody in the best tradition of these guys' Sixties idols.

In fact, this is one case where I sincerely believe lo-fi production seriously hurts the final result - with a cleaner, more easily analyze-able sound, every one of these songs could be much more popular than it is, and I mean that in a good sense. Not everybody will be patient enough to wait until all the crackle wears off and the melodies come through, and the important thing is, that crackle is totally unnecessary. Well, who knows, maybe by the time the Lips are finally retired and completely deified, somebody will come up with a little remixing.

The already mentioned 'Jesus Shootin' Heroin' I actually find overrated: it doesn't achieve all that much during its seven minutes, except offending one part of the population with its title and baffling the other part of the population (like me) with its obscure lyrical quotations. It's got a bit of Goth to it (especially with all these aaah-aaahs in the background), but it's obvious that these guys don't mean it, and a repetitive and tongue-in-cheek number like that is confusing rather than entertaining. Plus, poor production again hinders the final effect - the guitars just need to be cleaner to be truly mesmerizing.

However, I do happen to like some of the other 'softer' songs. 'With You', the best one of these, employs the old trick of starting the song off calmly and quietly and gently and then driving it up the wall and exploding all the environment with a barrage of sound, and whaddaya know, the old trick works, not to mention that the main melody is quite captivating. 'She Is Death' sounds exactly like all these moody psychedelic numbers that you'll meet on early-to-late Blur records - drowsy and dreary if you want to, hypnotic and mesmerizing if you don't. And the coda of 'Godzilla Flick', with its abrupt ending, is the purest minute of beauty on the album. Shame they kill it off so quickly.

So why only a 10? Well, first of all, it's just a humble prequel of things to come. Second, because I don't like the production (eat this, you indie kids). Third, because some of the songs do not qualify. And fourth, because many of the songs that do qualify still manage to be overlong - and there's hardly any development to them. Not that they had the means to have a lot of development at this stage, but in this case, see point one. And as an appendix: the CD reissue of the album tacks on an 'energetic' rendition of 'Summertime Blues' which is so horrible I now begin to think I really really underrated Blue Cheer way back when (the original and the Who version I've always cherished, of course). It's just the kind of interpretation that you can probably hear in every place in the world where there are MTV-snubbing pretentious indie bands playing, either the ones who don't know how to play their instruments or, just as often, ones who know but still intentionally play them badly because it's so uncool to let people know you're a good guitar player. (Or you might get accused of 'wankery', after which taking cyanide is the only solution). Of course, this makes the Lips' version "quintessential" in a way, but only as a historic document. Get it away from me, please.



Year Of Release: 1987

Record rating = 6
Overall rating = 9

Long songs, far-reaching ambitions, so where's the goddamn identity?


Track listing: 1) Everything's Explodin'; 2) One Million Billionth Of A Millisecond On; 3) Maximum Dream For Evil Knievel; 4) Can't Exist; 5) Ode To C.C. (Part 1); 6) The Ceiling Is Bendin'; 7) Prescription - Love; 8) Thanks To You; 9) Can't Stop The Spring; 10) Ode To C.C. (Part 2); 11) Love Yer Brain.

We're getting seriouser and seriouser. On this record, Coyne & Co. are officially falling in love with the long song format and offer us a couple mini-epics and at least one maxi-epic, apart from the standard Nuggets/post-punk fare. The maxi-epic is good - well, as good as a stripped down maxi-epic with no overdubs and minimum available instruments can be. The development is normal - first we're quiet and humble, although tense and nervous, and then we're loud and aggressive and rock your ass to pieces - but they pull it off amazingly well for this particular stage in their career. The loud part is especially good as Coyne's riffage, at certain points, smashes you against the wall, after which his screeching leads pulverize what's left intact of your body. It's no masterpiece, but I bet you couldn't do this with just one guitar, one bass, and some drums. Rush certainly couldn't. (So they brought in some synthesizers). To tell the truth, it's hardly that much better than whatever else is there on here, but it's sort of fun to see them try out the 'monster form' and bravely attack the wall-of-sound with so little previous experience.

When it comes to the rest of this material, though, the one thing that brings me down is just how much they plunder everything and everyone in sight. The problem with the early Flaming Lips is that the further they 'progressed', the more they consciously - or subconsciously - lifted ideas forgetting to at least mould them in their own way. Perhaps the most glaringly obvious example is 'The Ceiling Is Bendin', which is nothing but a direct steal from Alice Cooper's 'Levity Ball' (from the band's 1969 debut, Pretties For You, admittedly a pretty rare find, but so was Ten Years After's 'Religion'), well, at least the main (non-chorus) part is, right down to the seemingly weird fade-in/fade-outs of the rhythm section for each verse line and Coyne's 'plaintive' intonations. Admittedly, 'Levity Ball' boasted horrible production, whereas 'Ceiling Is Bendin' at least sounds nice and clean, but that's small consolation. Also admittedly, 'Levity Ball' itself owned a lot to Pink Floyd's 'Astronomy Domine', so maybe the idea here was that 'stealing from a thief is not stealing', but there's a big difference: many people have heard 'Astronomy Domine', but few have heard 'Levity Ball'. In other words, directly lifting pieces off well-known songs can count as "quoting", but lifting them off songs that nobody can vouch for cannot. That's the way I see it. Thank Heaven the Lips weren't in their "blooming stage" in 1987, or I'd ask you to slap 'em, too. In 1987, this could pass for minor misdemeanour.

Likewise, 'Maximum Dream For Evil Knievel' borrows its vocal melody off the Rolling Stones' 'Play With Fire' - but here at least the instrumental part is entirely different as it's a hard rocker instead of a ballad, with a few rather unpredictable melody developments, too. And 'Prescription: Love' starts off exactly like Pere Ubu's 'Life Stinks' (I do remember that bassline!) before settling into a solid blues-rock groove which also seems to have been lifted from somewhere, don't remember where from, though, so don't quote me on this. Okay, well, if we count this blues riff to be original, then it's just one more excellent blues-rock riff written by Wayne Coyne which you can add to the neatly growing pack initiated on Hear It Is.

On the other hand, just as often they're fairly open about their influences. After all, this album begins with a Beatles sample - 'take this brother, may it serve you well' from 'Revolution #9' and ends with a Beatles sample - a loop of 'turn off your mind relax and float down stream' from 'Tomorrow Never Knows'. The first sample presages 'Everything's Explodin', a fairly pedestrian and forgettable rocker not even saved by the acoustic mid-section; it's the kind of material I never ever want to hear from anybody. The second one concludes 'Love Yer Brain', a fairly interesting Lennon-influenced minimalistic piano ballad that ends with the band cheerily hacking the piano to pieces, thus at the same time making a suitably avantgarde gesture, paying tribute to the famous instrument destroyers of the past, and mocking the idea of a drum solo. Nothing makes any particular sense, but nobody expected any sense from these guys. So love yer brain and think up your own interpretation.

So as to name the rest of this stuff and be done with it, in between also lie two decent ballads - the somewhat Floydish 'Can't Exist' and the somewhat Seventies-singer-songwriterish 'Thanks To You', neither of which has any true staying power; the pseudo-psychedelic rocker 'Can't Stop The Spring' ('psychedelic', because it's occasionally interspersed with non-related martial tunes; 'pseudo', because interspersing a song with non-related martial tunes doesn't really make it psychedelic), but also at least having a fine chorus riff; and the two-part oddity 'Ode To C. C.', with the first part being all backwards and the second part being all forward. (No, they're not the same tune, although they both suck, particularly when you have to listen to them more than once).

Overall, this is a serious disappointment compared with what came before. They're still terrorized at the idea that some of this material could use better arrangement and production, and this unwarranted rawness still keeps sticking pins in my needles and vice versa; there's way too many ballads when at this point, their style only works on the 'arder material; there's too much hero worship to do something that would really be their own; and there's too much senseless gimmickry in the way of actual music. And at the same time, the stupid thing is that with all that gimmickry, the rudimentary psychedelia of Hear It Is and particularly the debut EP has all but disappeared anyway! Only 'Ceiling Is Bendin' could be dubbed 'hallucinatory', and only because it is ripped off a truly hallucinatory song written eighteen years ago. Pretty ironic for a band that would relatively be soon be hailed as the flag-bearers of Nineties' psychedelia, eh?

PS. I do realize that a lot of my indignation will seem strange to those who have been reared on the Lips, but you'll have to forgive that. I mean, I was never the biggest defender of Pretties For You, but I'll still take 'Levity Ball' over 'The Ceiling Is Bendin', and I will bash the latter for plagiarizing the former. Plagiarizing sucks. The Lips have no merit for creating that melody. As a cover, it is rather effective, I'll give you that, but it never adds much to the original anyway.



Year Of Release: 1989

Record rating = 7
Overall rating = 10

At least most of the riffs are good - but the arrangements aren't necessarily so. You want psychedelic, gimme more colours.


Track listing: 1) Drug Machine In Heaven; 2) Right Now; 3) Michael, Time To Wake Up; 4) Chrome Plated Suicide; 5) Hari-Krishna Stomp Wagon; 6) Miracle On 42nd Street; 7) Fryin' Up; 8) Hell's Angels' Cracker Factory (edit); 9) U.F.O. Story; 10) Redneck School Of Technology; 11) Shaved Gorilla; 12) The Spontaneous Combustion Of John; 13) Last Drop Of Morning Dew; 14) Begs And Achin'.

Marginally better, but again, no real advances. The production still sucks, there's still too much POINTLESS noise, and, well, you know. The good news is they have more or less stopped ripping off the idols. The bad news is that their own creative ideas are even worse than those of their idols. Typical example: 'U.F.O. Story'. This is six minutes of bad, bad shit. Now, in case you haven't noticed, I am a good-natured, kind-mannered, easy-going type of fellow, and I mostly reserve my "fuck you's" to extreme clinical cases (not to mention any names, although I do hold strong negative associations for a certain Charles Dickens personage), so I did set up a personal five-year plan for assimilating 'U.F.O. Story', but then it eventually clicked that around six million billion US indie rock bands each had around six million billion compositions like this one, so after a bit of multiplication, I decided to ease my life a bit after all.

Meaning that 'U.F.O. Story' is six minutes of bad, bad shit. Well, actually it's just two minutes of shitty dialogue and then two more minutes of shitty pseudo-Stooges noise and then, if you've been a good boy, you're given two minutes of, er, umm, nice piano muzak to push all the food back down your gullet. Frankly speaking, I don't know if the dialogue is shitty. It may have been funny. But you'd have to turn the volume up real loud to hear and besides, I already have sat through my Lumpy Gravy many, many times. The bottomline is: "smart people don't do these things".

Fortunately, where the Lips stay away from experimental noisemaking and 'ideas', concentrating on their typical distorted pop-rock, the results are much better. Coyne has re-ignited his riff-writing machine, and it serves him well on 'Drug Machine In Heaven', which combines Sabbath-like guitar tone with punkish length (two minutes) and a fun surrealistic solo (I can't make out that tone - is that even guitar? Or is this a drugged Casio?). The "scraping" introduction riff to 'Right Now' is even better, and that's one environment where the chaotic approach really works - when it is applied to a real melody, that is. Not a classic, but close to becoming one.

What is a classic is, by all means, 'Chrome Plated Suicide'. Just a very good, powerful anthem where the vocals again carry us back to the Sixties and the guitar noise still anchors us in the Nineties, and the guitar solo soars up to the sky and the only dubious thing is the extra fade-in/fade-out (somehow Wayne has a weird love for these things). Well, I could do without the lengthy buildup too. Yeah, I'd easily trim it to a three-and-a-half minutes length, provided that'd leave more space for something good. Oh, and for those who care, it's the song where they actually spell out the album title.

There's also a bunch of smaller, punkier, more "compact" rockers on here, most of them with progressively weirdified titles: 'Redneck School Of Technology', for instance, a song that slightly steals from The Jam's 'Private Hell', I think (but it might well be a coincidence) and is the only song I know that isn't afraid of displaying the word 'redneck' in its title. Except, of course, for 'Sweet Redneck Alabama' and '(Lord I Was Born A) Redneck Man', don't forget these too. Or 'Hari-Krishna Stomp Wagon' with its UUUUGLY dissonant instrumental passages but a pretty tight rock'n'roll drive all the same. Or the strangely funky first part of 'Begs And Achin'. These are good bits, all of them.

One thing I can't really make my mind upon is the instrumental 'Hell's Angels' Cracker Factory'. The latest CD edition of this album actually has something like a 23-minute (sic!!) version of this song, and although I haven't heard it, I have very serious doubts about its being able to sound better than 'Sister Ray'. For three minutes, though, this is tolerable, especially when they end up throwing the opera-singing lady into the mix, not in an ELO-like kind of way at all, but rather with a total lack of respect for opera singing. (Hey, I have plenty of respect for opera - it's just that within the context of a pop/rock song I'd rather take opera singing with a grain of salt than without one. Come to think of it, with a sack of salt rather than with just one grain).

Still, even with all the good songwriting there's still plenty of filler which, at this moment, to me just doesn't look like the proverbial beanstalk, if you know what I mean; me meaning that I'd rather move on to bigger, better, and more glorious things like spreading Communism all over the planet than wasting time on acoustic bores like 'Miracle On 42nd Street' or electric bores like 'Shaved Gorilla'.

In conclusion, I'll just bluntly state what I don't really like about the early Lips: they sound too early. That's not really tautology here. There are bands whose earliest output just does not sound "too early". It may suck, or it may rule, but there may still be an overall sense of purpose and a feeling that the band really knows what it is doing with its sound. The Lips, though, even in 1989 were still "searching". It's interesting to look at their "research" and they certainly stumbled upon a few gems and quite a few nice melodies along the way, but they didn't seem to know what was a good melody and what wasn't. Like, for instance, 'Shaved Gorilla' just isn't a good melody. You might disagree, but It. Is. Not. A. Good. Melody. It's something you play when you're in your first band and you're still learning chords and hearing the old masters and trying to understand how you effectuate transition from verse to middle-eight and back (not that 'Shaved Gorilla' even has a middle-eight). 'Chrome Plated Suicide' is a good melody - but it feels as if they could just as well have a bad melody in its place. This is why I don't even waste any time trying to analyze the lyrics - if the lyrics suck, I'm saving myself extra trouble; and if they rule, the perspective of putting the cart before the horse, err, I mean, the lyrics before the music would just further prove my point. It's a frequent thing with smart young kids: the smarter you are, the easier it is to pen a great lyric, but the harder it actually is to create a great melody.

Well, at least they did learn The Art Of Rewarding Your Bad Song With A Cool Title. That's gotta count for something.



Year Of Release: 1990

Record rating = 8
Overall rating = 11

One way to compensate for lack of hooks - make your noise colourful.


Track listing: 1) Shine On Sweet Jesus; 2) Unconsciously Screaming; 3) Raining Babies; 4) Take Me Ta Mars; 5) Five Stop Mother Superior Rain; 6) Stand In Line; 7) God Walks Among Us Now; 8) There You Are; 9) Mountain Side; 10) (What A) Wonderful World.

So, apparently, all it took was a longer album title! And, a second guitarist. This here second guy is called Jonathan Donahue and apparently he must have told Wayne, 'hey, I like your chords, but your tone sucks, man'. Because the changes were radical. It's almost as if this Donahue fella were Robert Fripp's illegitimate offspring. All of a sudden, there's sonic effects a-plenty and the once grungey and just plain boring guitars grow alien fins and pink elephant tails and start taking you places. Provided you can stand all the racket. And you have to be a brave new soldier in a brave new world to tolerate the racket at the end of 'Unconsciously Screaming', do believe me.

Ironically, it was originally supposed to be the Lips' last album. And even more ironically, the very realization of this helped. The band intended to go out with a bang, using up all the money they had and for once at least recording a quality effort, with solid production and lots of gadgets and stuff. Normally, if your songs are shit, no amount of studio wizardry will convince people otherwise. But the Lips didn't really write shitty songs - yes, much of their early stuff was derivative and mediocre, but you could always see credible ounces of talent masquerading under the bland coverlets, and all it took was a decent working environment to help 'em blast off.

Ambulance is not a masterpiece, and it's still seriously hampered by Wayne's ego and occasional subpar material, but it's definitely a serious and cardinal step forward. It's hard to say what exactly is so different about this album, but it certainly was one of the "big events" in 1990's cultural life. I'd say the Lips' closest rivals at that time were The Pixies, but the Lips don't have Black & Co.'s exaggerated goofiness - the Lips take themselves much more seriously, and although it's dang hard to grope for the meaning of life in the catalogs of either band, chances are you'd be more satisfied if you stayed closer to Wayne Coyne's stylistics. Me, I don't care either way; the Lips aren't that straightforward or pretentious for me to get worried about.

There's lots of slow (or, more rarely, fast) moving, meandering, hallucinatory dinosaurs here, all dripping in oily psychedelia and lyrical anti-sense. Most of these are carried forward by the old trusty chainsaw tone from ol' Wayne plus all kinds of unimaginable colourful overdubs from Jonathan out there, over our heads. The actual melodies are hardly more complex than before, but much of the time this simplicity is oddly effective. 'Shine On Sweet Jesus', for instance - that vocal melody is sooooo simple and stupid, but it soooooo works, doesn't it? Even considering Wayne mostly sings completely out of tune, right? And I'm not even sure what works. It doesn't rock, it doesn't uplift emotionally, it just sounds... cool. It's all drenched in quasi-psychedelic noise, the likes of which you could encounter on early Pink Floyd records, but Wayne's half-childish, half-drunk delivery pretty much destroys the druggy effects, giving the song an intentionally "unexperienced" feel. Like it's psychedelic music by a band who desperately want to keep their feet on the ground at the same time.

It's easier to judge the songs when they actually do induce primal reactions. 'God Walks Among Us Now', for instance, does rock, and rocks savagely, with Wayne's electronically encoded vocals adding grit to the punkish rhythm and Donahue's "astral effects" causing acute aural pain if you happen to be in headphones. And on 'Take Me Ta Mars', the rhythm section establishes a simple, but awesome midtempo groove so it doesn't really matter much whatever Wayne is singing and whichever category of UFOs Donahue happens to be mimicking at the moment. These songs fulfill the good old traditional requirements (melody, rhythm, power, etc.) and are thus immediately effective. Of course, it helps that the former is so unusually shrill and the latter is so disturbingly crude and that both have memorable vocal melodies, but that's what gives the songs their identity, not helps them to grab you by the lapels and throw you against the wall. Whereas 'Shine On Sweet Jesus' is a more complex case. It's got plenty of identity, but the lapels are definitely safe.

Hey, I know what I'm talking about here. I'm talking about early Seventies' era Bowie, ain't I? Well, you can make Mr Stardust sing lead vocals on 'Five Stop Mother Superior Rain' and then effortlessly chuck it onto any of his records from Space Oddity to Ziggy and see if anybody notices. (Bowie probably wouldn't make such an obvious Beatles nod in the song title, though, besides, there's a dead giveaway here when Wayne sings about the shooting of John Lennon). It's not one of my favourite numbers here, because it panders to that epoch way too much, but as far as meaningless anthems go, it ain't half bad. Too long, though, so my favourite acoustic-based number still has to be 'There You Are', distinguished by the least trivial chord sequences on the entire album, crickets, "underwater" effects on the lead acoustic parts, and the fact that it's a terrific breather between the two heaviest numbers on the entire record.

Still, despite the fact that the only song I really have no use for is the draggy, stop-and-start-and-never-end 'Stand In Line', gruesomely abusing backward tapes and being neither catchy nor fun, I would say that the amount of creative ideas on Ambulance is somewhat disproportionate. And the best song is still '(What A) Wonderful World', whaddaya know? They give it a great arrangement, going from calm and quiet to roaring and feedbackish and back again, and never letting us know whether they're serious about it or not. In the meantime also befuddling the listener, of course, because after all this endless trip and all these requests to go to Mars and all these hidden tributes to Ziggy Stardust and whatnot, hoopla, here they are singing about the beauties of our own homely little planet. They seem to do it in a strangely sad manner, though. So irony it is! (Ping!).

One thing's for certain: Ambulance gives us a band with its own artistic vision and its own style of work, no matter how much it owes to worthy predecessors. It's not easy to "get" this vision (and it's not obvious that one should actually try), but it's there, and this lays the ground for fascination(s) to come. In the words of Coyne himself, 'this is my present to the world, and I want you to take it'. Sure, we'll take it, Mr Coyne. No problem with that. Taking isn't giving, after all. Whether or not we want to keep it has to be proven by what's still in store.



Year Of Release: 1992

Record rating = 9
Overall rating = 12

Oh yeah - now that the noise is colourful, we're ready to push forward on the songwriting front.

Best song: TALKIN' BOUT THE blah blah blah

Track listing: 1) Talkin' 'Bout The Smiling Deathporn Immortality Blues (Everyone Wants To Live Forever); 2) Hit Me Like You Did The First Time; 3) The Sun; 4) Felt Good To Burn; 5) Gingerale Afternoon (The Astrology Of A Saturday); 6) Halloween On The Barbary Coast; 7) The Magician Vs. The Headache; 8) You Have To Be Joking (Autopsy Of The Devil's Brain); 9) Frogs; 10) Hold Your Head.

Gets a 12 because I hate long titles. So figure this: I get this album lovingly copied for me by an illegally-minded colleague and whoops, I can't read the name of the first track because it's way too long for a regular file title. So it's like, 'oh, what can I do? I know! Let's consult the All-Music Guide!' So I'm there and I'm, like, typing in the title of the album and I get shit because I can only type in "Hit To Death In The Future Hea" and the stupid script gets angry at me. So I drop the "Hea" and I finally get the track listing and what do I see? Track one: "Talkin' bout the Smiling Deahporn...". THREE FUCKIN' DOTS! AND BIG SMELLY NAZIS ALL OVER THE PLACE!

Okay, it actually gets a 12 because it only deserves a 13 on a particularly good day. But what I won't deny is that Hit To Death is really another big leap for the band. As good as Ambulance was, it was a essentially a freak show. The tunes were weird, rather pointless, not that well written and/or professional, and however classy the overall sound was, there just wasn't nearly enough ambition to justify the Lips' "symbolic" status. With Hit To Death, they switch to second gear and roll into truly 'epic' mode. And when a band rolls into 'epic' mode, question number one is: is this adequately represented in the sound and songwriting? Is the result respectable or is the result laughable?

Well, you don't really need to look further than the first track to get a clear understanding. 'Talkin' 'Bout Really Long Song Titles' breaks inside your conscience just like a solid Lips track should - with fast pace, insane noise, and weirdness a-plenty, but after you get used to the first sonic waves and brush the excess noise off your body, you start to realize that the band is really making its way through an uplifting, almost religiously ecstatic pop anthem. It's hard to get to the exact meaning - after all, lines like 'everyone wants to live forever/Thinkin' that it'd be a lot better' don't tell us much about whether Mr Coyne himself feels the same way - but it's pretty easy to get excited about the thing anyway, especially with the "airy" vocal melody and the oh-so-artsy romantic whoah-whoahs. As for the bassy fart noises that accompany us all the way through (for some reason, it seems like somebody keeps chanting "doo-wop-wop" to me!), well, they sure can seem annoying and distracting to some but that's their thing, which I like about them - for the Lips, nothing can be too ecstatic and uplifting so as to be denied the right to be slightly brought down by something stupid and seemingly out of place.

Come to think of it, Hit To Death is stuffed to death with anthems. What's 'Gingerale Afternoon', for example? Well, I mean, except for basically being an update of the old, naive, "humanistic" Britpop style, retaining the boundless optimism of the melody but restraining it with lyrics that are subject to gazillions of interpretations? Well... er, nothing except that, I guess. But isn't that more or less enough? And, of course, it's also a music historian's dream, as you can pick up all these endless lyrical references to the past. 'Gingerale Afternoon', of course, refers to stuff like 'Lazy Afternoon' (Small Faces) or 'Sunny Afternoon' (Kinks), while the main hook ('I'm feelin' like I'm leaving much too soon') is sung almost exactly the same way as 'moving much too fast' in the Doors' 'Take It As It Comes'. Only the Doors were predictably morose and depressed and the Lips are ambivalent.

Another advance comes in purely musical terms - the songs become more shapely and whaddaya know, there are some truly fantastic guitar riffs, like, for instance, in 'The Magician Vs. The Headache' (where by 'headache' I suppose they must be meaning that fifteen-second period of looped guitar crackle that ends the song - arrrgh, now that's a bad gimmick if there ever was one), but otherwise the song is excellent. A riff that's rocking, colourful, and memorable, haven't seen anything like that from these guys yet. Only slightly less impressive is 'Hit Me Like You Did The First Time', where the lyrics are sort of like The Beatles, Bob Dylan, and The Cure rolled into one and the slide guitar adds another terrific retro-psychedelic touch. And oh yes, of course there's also 'Frogs', which, in my humble opinion, had a lot more potential to become a hit single than 'She Don't Use Jelly' - I can just imagine all the male (and at least half the female) population of the Western world blasting the tune out of their car windows and singing along to the 'I'm waiting for the frogs to fall' refrain. Say, maybe P. T. Anderson could have used the Lips for the Magnolia soundtrack rather than the constantly-broken-hearted Aimee Mann? Well, no, I guess he couldn't. The Flaming Lips aren't whiners.

In short, every rocker on here that really does 'hit you like it did the first time'. But not only that, these guys also start writing slow moody songs that work, a thing that was pretty problematic for them until now. This time, the "slow wonder" is the amazing acoustic ballad 'You Have To Be Joking' - in inevitable terms of influences, it probably owes a lot to "humble narrators" like Bob Dylan and "credible complainers" like George Harrison, and the lyrics are strangely 'normal' (no idea what kind of gruesome things are surmised, but isn't there always something?) but hardly cliched, and that's good: finally, Coyne gets to shed the old nerdy post-modernist skin and deliver some sincere or, at worst, would-be sincere sentiment across. As for "slow psychedelia", 'The Sun' is a very worthy imitation of the lazy drug-addled brain-wrecking mantra of the '67 variety, in a vein not too different from the Stones' 'Child Of The Moon'. The other two lethargic dirges didn't make much of an impression on me (especially the final track, which is just a big fat sonic nothing and a really anticlimactic ending after 'Frogs'), but they sure didn't spoil it, either.

And that's your solid Lips album for youse: derivative as hell, but finally with a solid lump of personal identity and lots of great songwriting and arranging ideas. Ambitious and pretentious, but never truly overriding or overreaching. Except with maybe these twenty minutes of speaker-jumping static noises at the end, but I don't have them recorded for me, and I don't think you're supposed to listen to them in the first place. You're just supposed to know they're there. These guys aren't metal-machine-music-minded, really. Or maybe they are? The good thing about the Lips is that it's not that easy to put the definite finger on them. They can be clowns today and prophets tomorrow, or they can even be clowns and prophets within the same song (remember, "doo-wop-wop" vs. "man can't only live in his dreams", right?), and thus, even if they are charlatans and nincompoops (I have no idea, and neither do you), it'll take you at least a Ph.D. to prove this. And you probably aren't ready for a Ph.D.!

PS. And I haven't even mentioned the big epic of the album - the song about the Barbary Coast. Come on, listen to those sonic trips. Read those lyrics. Would that song be easily rotated on today's MTV? Something makes me doubt it.



Year Of Release: 1993

Record rating = 10
Overall rating = 13

That's the way it should be: equal balance between noise and melody.


Track listing: 1) Turn It On; 2) Pilot Can At The Queer Of God; 3) Oh My Pregnant Head; 4) She Don't Use Jelly; 5) Chewin The Apple Of Your Eye; 6) Superhumans; 7) Be My Head; 8) Moth In The Incubator; 9) ********; 10) When Yer Twenty Two; 11) Slow Nerve Action.

Now this here is a truly wonderful album with zilch reservations about it. I absolutely do not give a rodent's posteriors about it also being the "pinnacle" of the band's commerciality, and thus about any potential accusations of rating the "sellout" or, at least, the "most accessible" record so high. That commerciality, let's face it, has been nothing but a fluke. That the album's most novelty-oriented number, 'She Don't Use Jelly', became a radio favourite and made a lot of people realize that The Flaming Lips was not the title of a porn movie, has been nothing but a pure accident. In the same way the Beatles, had they formed in the late Eighties and also been struggling with public success, could have made a breakthrough with 'Ob-La-Di Ob-La-Da' and get hailed as the "kings of white ska" or something. The Lips have never been aiming for true commerciality; their longtime association with Warners, for whom they've always been but a mere blip on the radar, was just a stroke of good luck. And, I guess, one hell of a way to make a good living, but that's a different matter.

The fact is, while Transmissions is not revolutionary or even all that "brain-splittin'", it's consistent - amazingly consistent for a band who'd spent five years struggling to learn how to write good songs and then two more years struggling to master the possibilities of a good studio. Ambulance gave them ample possibilities; Hit To Death gave them scope and ambitiousness; with Transmissions, they finally add the last necessary elements - confidence and quality control. All of the eleven tracks contained herein have something to offer, and offer it boldly and loudly. This certainly has a lot to do with the arrival of new band members, experimental guitar player Ronald Jones (replacing Donahue) and drummer/arranger/musical guru (and, apparently, from now on one of the chief songwriters) Steven Drozd. Together with Wayne, these three took major sonic care of the record, adding spice where necessary and concentrating on the meaty parts where the spice wouldn't be enough.

Again, "direct" ripping-off is kept to an absolute minimum. The closest aural tribute I got was the intentionally crappy lo-fi sound of the otherwise pretty acoustic ballad 'Chewin The Apple Of Your Eye' - in voice and guitar sound almost identical to all those numerous outtakes on the Lost Lennon Tapes where you just have John singing in a very plaintive voice and some primitive, but nevertheless attractive strumming. Well, remembering 'You Have To Be Joking' off the previous album, it's easy to see that's the way Wayne likes recording his ballads. God forbid, I mean really God forbid he try and make one of these generic pompous orchestrated sacchariney arrangements! Would be better to have no ballads at all. But we likes us some ballads, and what's the best way to strip a ballad of cheese and corniness? Right-ee, make it sound as crappy as possible. (That, by the way, is one reason why John Lennon is a genius and Wayne Coyne is just an extremely talented songwriter - John actually wasn't afraid of lushly arranged ballads, which usually sounded great and absolutely not corny, and his outtakes are exactly that, outtakes, never intended to be the real thing).

I mean "crappy" as in "cracklin' all over", of course, not really "unlistenable". 'Chewin The Apple Of Your Eye' is one of this band's best ballads, together with the obligatory (but endearing) whistling at the end and all. But the ballads are not the main course here. The main course is a bunch of traditionally written, but quite untraditionally arranged pop-rockers. Like before, they're arrogant and noisy, but the noise part has been toned down just a bit to let the music shine through all the clearer. When 'Turn It On' opens the album, it greets us with chaotic radio crackling and hissing, but in a matter of seconds the noise is pushed back, making way for a heavy, but distinct guitar riff under which we hear an equally well distinguishable jangly Byrds-ey pattern. It is, of course, a weird irony of fate that radio stations never really endorsed this single - one of the most uplifting odes to radio ever recorded (eat your heart out, Geddy Lee) - bypassing it in favour of 'She Don't Use Jelly'.

Which doesn't mean that 'She Don't Use Jelly' is a cool tune either, of course. It's got a very specific reason for existence, of course: satisfying the songwriter's hooliganish urge to write about a girl using vaseline and getting away with it. (It's never explicitly mentioned what the girl's motives are, but I'll let you guess). Actually, there might be an additional reason - I'm probably the only one who suspects a bit of Zeppelin-mockery in the way Coyne draws out the 'she uses ta-a-a-a-angerines' line, but hey, no harm in making a hypothesis, right? The good thing is that the two reasons merge together in a hilarious poppy narrative with some great use of a slide guitar.

But then there are more ambitious compositions, like the bedazzling 'Moth In The Incubator', for instance. At but four minutes long, it's multi-part and multi-layered, beginning like a Neil Young acoustic ballad and then becoming a grunge-meets-Britpop monster of a song with almost as many guitar overdubs as you'd meet on a Cure record (okay, maybe not that many, but then again, Robert Smith is the anti-Brian Eno of rock music, isn't he?) and THEN going into this terrific fast-paced instrumental jam which is like a wild medieval dance with showers of flowers out of the sky and the entire population of the entire village celebrating for the sakes of celebration. And then there are all the nifty subtle touches you're only beginning to decode upon subsequent listens. For instance, the psychedelic guitar solo on 'Pilot Can At The Queer Of God' is immediately noticeable, but how about the underneath layer of guitar jangle which any other band would have either not even thought of adding, or, on the contrary, would have pushed to the foreground? The Lips give the song two readings at the same time - one hard-rockin' one and one soft-rockin' one. You can't choose one of them (that option wouldn't be added until four years later), but you can concentrate on either one, with different results ensuing.

Neither are The Lips beyond bubble-gum, as they demonstrate on the alarmingly happy-dippy 'Be My Head' (except for going 'be my head, and I'll be yours' in the refrain - that's not alarmingly happy!), but even bubble-gum, when it gets in their hands, comes out entangled in feedback, white noise, crazyass jazzy soloing, and what-not. Nor are they beyond a little dumb country-western (the asterisk song, aka 'Plastic Jesus'), which some people get offended by, but lay off the little joke, all you angry people - it's short, cutesy, and so doggone quiet you can't make out a word that Wayne is singing. Nor are they beyond self-rewriting: 'When Yer Twenty Two' is one of the few weaker links on the record because it's basically an inferior take on the far more powerful 'Halloween On The Barbary Coast', but even so, they even it out by ending the song with a terrific "siren-imitating" outburst of guitar rhythms.

And if I were to single out one truly defining moment of this record, it would be the exact second where the loud, heavy, snake-winded guitar line joins the crashing, ultra-loud swing of the drumming pattern to 'Slow Nerve Action'. As powerful as Hit To Death was, nothing on that record really went off with such a tremendous bang - and thus, where Hit To Death ended on a lethargically anti-climactic note, Transmissions end with a deservedly impressive crash-boom-bang of an epic tune. A fitting conclusion to a great album by a band whose musical vision is now complete; they'd certainly move on to different things in the future, but whether they could transgress on to a different level is harder to say. Then again, what would a higher level look like, exactly? That's a question that not only The Flaming Lips cannot answer so far.



Year Of Release: 1995

Record rating = 10
Overall rating = 13

Metaphor("psychedelic indie-rock") = "Clouds taste metallic". Now, who's gonna argue that these guys don't have a formula?

Best song: hey, I have six or seven pretenders here. Let's not waste time and just move on.

Track listing: 1) The Abandoned Hospital Ship; 2) Psychiatric Explorations Of The Fetus With Needles; 3) Placebo Headwound; 4) This Here Giraffe; 5) Brainville; 6) Guy Who Got A Headache And Accidentally Saves The World; 7) When You Smile Listen; 8) Kim's Watermelon Gun; 9) They Punctured My Yolk; 10) Lightning Strikes The Postman; 11) Christmas At The Zoo; 12) Evil Will Prevail; 13) Bad Days.

To begin with, this was as close a 14/15 as I could ever have. Exchanging my heart 'n' brains for soulless metal wires and transistors for a moment, I'll brutally say that Transmissions woould get an overall rating of 13.21, while Clouds Taste Metallic would get an overall rating of 13.48. "So?", the ecstatic, optimistic, romantic, severely underground-ic young intelligent admirer of the Flaming Lips will say, "what's up with the two hundredth thing? Can't we have a deal on that? Surely there can be a solution!"

Well, coming down from approximate mathematics and back into the world of roses, thorns, briars, and feelings, I have a problem with this album. Speaking in traditional terms, it is too "leaden". Meaning that there is an acutely disbalanced proportion of heavy, slow, overproduced, meandering rockers which, upon the first few listens, seriously threaten the listener's (that'd be me) sense of hearing. Of course, this had almost always been a problem, but since Hit To Death, Coyne and co. had begun to slightly cut down on the noise in favour of easily audible melodies; apparently, though, they must have thought Satellite Heart was way too 'lightweight' (which it certainly wasn't in a general sense, but certainly was compared to the band's background), and made dang sure the heavier, gruffer sound would once again start to slice your speakers open on the follow-up.

The problem is, it is possible to get used to it, and gradually extract the high quality melodies of songs like 'Kim's Watermelon Gun', 'Guy Who Got A Headache...', 'Lightning Strikes...' etc. etc., and I did get used to it, and I did extract the melodies, and I do like the songs now, but I was patient. I had to sit through this stuff, like, five or six times before it really clicked. (In comparison, 'lighter' songs like 'This Here Giraffe' or 'Brainville' won over my heart almost immediately). And the question is - would it have killed them to tone down the sound on these songs? After all, the Flaming Lips, like the guy who got a headache, are here to accidentally save the world. How can they save the world if it takes such a tremendous amount of goodwill on the part of the potential listener to actually believe in their healing abilities? Especially if the potential listener hates Kurt Cobain and the Ramones? For my money, Transmissions did a much better job of showcasing the Lips' importance - but they were so afraid of "going commercial" they immediately made sure the next record would have none of that. Silly lads.

So silly, because this could have been a great album. A little more elaboration, a little more refining, a little more commerciality (in the good sense) and Clouds could indeed become both a Pet Sounds and a Revolver for the Nineties' generation. Well, in a way, it has, but only for the select few. Not being able to "upgrade" from the Transmissions level in terms of quality, they are still able to "upgrade" in terms of quantity - meaning that, practically for the first time, there is absolutely no filler on the album. Each and every song has got its point of attraction, as well as an actual point to make. Add to this all the essential trademarks of the Lips' psyche, which they inherited from the Beatles/Beach Boys/whoever - the anti-postmodern soulfulness and sensitivity; the quirkiness and oddball lyrical imagery; the classic 'artistic naivete' and a bit of childishness - and you have yourself one of the best pop albums of the Nineties, but sadly marred by the "abuse" of the volume levels and the persistent unwillingness to sound 'professional' on any kind of level.

With 'The Abandoned Hospital Ship', it immediately becomes clear we're still riding the same old sci-fi horse, but the unbridled optimism of 'Turn It On' is here counteracted by a somewhat tired, lazy, almost slumbering sound - the introduction to Clouds is not for those who are in for another upbeat, radio-friendly trip. You'll have to make your way through it slowly and carefully, picking the sharp needles of Jones' scratchy guitar solo out of different parts of your body as the church bells seem to mock you from above. Strange from the very beginning - this song, which should normally be an album closer, with its solemnity and "conclusiveness", is placed at the start. Could that mean something? Probably not.

Fortunately, your ready-made lethargy is already broken on the second song. 'Psychiatric Explorations...' certainly has to be commended for having the best Lips build-up so far, but the main point is, of course, The Cool Unforgettable Vocal Melody #1 on the album, the one for which any pop band of the Sixties could have traded all their amphetamines. What is the song about? A fetus plucked with needles? Hallucinations? The food chain? Who cares? With a melody that great, you certainly needn't. Even so, if it were up to me, I would have made the guitar a bit quieter and the vocals a bit louder. What, you think it'll hurt? I certainly don't.

'Placebo Headwound' is arguably the first Flaming Lips "lyrically normal" song in a long time, if ever - and almost intentionally trivial at that, but where for many people lyrical triviality is an unavoidable and cheapening sin, Coyne's "if God hears all my questions how come there's never an answer?" subtly hearkens back to the lyrical triviality of the 60s, when "rock lyricism" was still in its infancy and you could easily get away with a verse of such staggerin' banality you'd probably be burned alive for it fifteen years later. In fact, with all these simple pseudo-prayers and "tales of silly actions" Wayne is channelling the spirit of Brian Wilson (at least, whenever he's not busy channelling the spirit of Paul McCartney).

He certainly does that on 'This Here Giraffe', the first of the several zoo-related tunes on the album and the one that borders the most on "cutesy". I mean, what kind of a chorus is 'This here giraffe/Laughed/ This here giraffe/Laughed'? By the Lips' own convoluted standards, no kind of a chorus at all. But there's a deeply hidden "primal pop" ring to it, something basic and essential, the kind of thing that elevated Paul McCartney and the Ramones to genius level. It's probably helped by the intricate weaving of the acoustic and electric guitars, of course, but the song would easily work with just one rhythm guitar as well. And look - the song ain't got a multi-ton metallic overcoat on its shoulders, and it's still excellent! Neither does 'Brainville' (no relation to REM's 'Rockville', but somehow the "humble" stylistics of the song, as opposed to all the gigantomania around, still made me think of Reckoning), whose chorus was probably the first thing I carried away with me in my head after sitting through the album. Again, some magnificent slide guitar parts really make the number.

Now we're getting to the beginnings of the real Pomp. 'Guy Who Got A Headache And Accidentally Saves The World' is a marvellous creation - but you have to check the lyrics to believe that. Otherwise, it may just forever remain a never-ending, tortoise-moving, elephant-pounding musical Everest highlighted by repetitive yeah-yeah-yeahs. But it's in fact a song about a... a guy who got a headache and accidentally saved the world! The Pomp refers to the grandiosity of this event, and the Heaviness - to the endless unbearable pain that he actually experiences. This combination of "suffering" and "grandness" is so dang clever, neither Brian Wilson nor Paul McCartney would have ever thought of something like that. (Which is why Wayne Coyne really ain't either of them.) Thus, it's the one "heavy" song on the record where even I wouldn't change anything.

Say, I actually never intended this review to become a detailed account of every song, but it just goes to show how good it actually is - I don't get this kind of urge with just about anything I review. Well, anyway, I'll make it short from now on, benefitting from the fact that the album's "side B" is slightly less stellar. Actually, it just sort of merges together due to less clever sequencing, with three more of those mastodonts in a row - and only 'Kim's Watermelon Gun' giving you a bit of rest by cleverly inserting "quiet" pauses in between all the madly galloping rhinoceroses. Nevertheless, 'They Punctured My Yolk' is a glorious "space anthem" with some of the band's cleverest vocal arrangements to date, and 'Lightning Strikes The Postman' has a brilliant surprise for an ending. And then, after one more glorious hard pop number ('Christmas At The Zoo' - the chorus feels like a re-write to me, but that's just my stupid intuition), Wayne Coyne leaves y'all on a healthy, protein-filled, nutritious note, saying that 'Evil Will Prevail' and we all know it and 'a million people can't be wrong'. Now who else do you know who'd be ready to sing this the exact same way some other guy would sing 'don't worry, be happy'? Wicked sense of irony, Mr Coyne, wicked sense of irony. Well, at least there's some practical advice offered in 'Bad Days' as well - 'And you hate your boss at your job/Well, in your dreams you can blow his head off/In your dreams/Show no mercy/And all your bad days will end'.

It does worry me that with this album, the Lips were as quick to lose public success as they were quick to gain it with Transmissions, and I think they could have handled the situation better, but in the long run, I suppose history won't forget Clouds Taste Metallic, an album where psychedelia, sci-fi yearnings, pop sensibilities, Big Artist ambitions, a bit of charming infantilism, some open sentimentality, and lots and lots and lots of studio experimentation and just plain hard work somehow came together and worked out a synthesis that wasn't quite "genius", but was easily the next best thing to "genius" when you can't really get one.



Year Of Release: 1997

Record rating = 9
Overall rating = 12

Elitists of the world unite! This is your awesome banner.

Best song: how can one be named when there's no way to... oh wait up.

Track listing: 1) Okay I'll Admit That I Really Don't Understand; 2) Riding To Work In The Year 2025 (Your Invisible Now); 3) Thirty-Five Thousand Feet Of Despair; 4) A Machine In India; 5) The Train Runs Over The Camel But Is Derailed By The Gnat; 6) How Will We Know? (Futuristic Crashendos); 7) March Of The Rotten Vegetables; 8) The Big Ol' Bug Is The New Baby Now.

Well - I can relate. I remember the moment I became able to lay my hands on two portable music sources at the same time (which, considerin' me Soviet upbringing, wasn't that early in me life), I, too, was fascinated with the possibilities of overlaying two different tracks on top of each other and seeing what happens. And today, with just your computer and nothing else, these possibilities have truly skyrocketed - as long as you have enough operative memory, that is.

So it's only natural that at one point, someone would grow bold enough to explore this matter more thoroughly, with both artistic and commercial purposes; and it's certainly not all that surprising that the someone should be Wayne Coyne. His first attempt actually dated back to 1996 with the so-called Parking Lot Experiments, where he had several dozen cars arrayed in a parking lot with their tape decks blasting all kinds of different, but specifically arranged sonic patterns. However, you couldn't do much with that kind of stuff in the studio, nor could you truly convert the power of the event into one specific recording. Thus the somewhat less Gargantuan, but even bolder in its "artist vs. listener" approach Zaireeka project appeared.

You probably already know what it's all about, but for the few unsuspecting ones, a brief description: Zaireeka (a neologistic combination of eureka and Zaire - and, by the way, contrary to some silly misunderstandings I've encountered, Zaire does not mean 'anarchy'; Zaire is the name of an African country which happened to become associated with 'anarchy' in Wayne's mind upon taking in a radio broadcast), anyway, Zaireeka is a musical landscape that is unequally 'spread' in between four separate CDs, all of which you're supposed to be listening to simultaneously on 4 different stereo systems. The CDs can be listened to separately or in combinations of two and three, but the full effect is supposed to be achieved when all four are blasting from different corners of the room, with (preferably) four persons present to trigger the proceedings at the same time.

The main trick here is that, no matter how precise you set the controls, the CDs will rarely, if ever, play completely simultaneously, and Wayne is astute enough to mention that in the liner notes himself. So, naturally, the Lips had to be very careful when spreading various sonic layers over the CDs. It'd have been ruinous, for instance, to split the rhythm section - with the bass in one CD and the drums in the other, the most probable result would be unlistenable cacophony. The solution, therefore, was to record the "body" of the composition in its entirety on one CD (usually it's number one or number two, though there may have been exceptions, I don't remember) and then use the other three for various effects, gimmicks, and countermelodies that don't necessarily have to be synchronised note-for-note. And the way this was executed is totally ingenious - I don't think I have ever managed to synchronize the CDs correctly, yet only very, very occasionally did I ever experience the uneasy feeling one gets from sharp, unintentional dissonance.

The wonderful side of this is that not only does Zaireeka have much more than the predictable 15 ways of being listened to, it, in fact, cannot ever be listened to in the same way for more than one time. It is absolutely the ultimate "experimental" album of all time - with the experiment, for once, not ending in the recording studio but being actually carried over to the audience. Sort of a 'do-it-yourself' approach: here are the raw ingredients for yours truly, now it's up to you to form your own understanding of how this music should play. You think the ultra-high and ultra-low frequencies of 'How Will We Know?' suck? Just turn them off and listen to the basic track on CD number two. You want 'Okay I'll Admit...' to be moody instead of rocking? Don't play the rhythm section part. You want 'A Machine In India' to sound more subtle? Turn down the volume on the CD with the orchestral crescendos, turn up the acoustic rhythm part. And so on and on, ad infinitum.

Yep, Zaireeka is certainly 'different'. And, as with all things 'different', the discussion accompanying the album has mainly been limited to one party calling it revolutionary and mind-shattering, raving about all the new musical horizons it allowed to uncover, and the opposite party calling it a pointless, useless gimmick that did nothing, led nowhere, and was noticed by none. And, as with all things 'different', both parties have a point. In fact, both parties are right.

The main trouble with Zaireeka is that it came out at the wrong time. The Nineties, in terms of "mass appeal", continued the trend of the Eighties' "simplification". With Electronica ushering out a huge chunk of live music, blockheaded grunge clones ushering out professional musicians, and action games ushering out strategies and RPGs (there goes the Old Complaining Geezer in me!), here was a guy that was, like, asking you to actually make something - to put forward more effort instead of less! No way, brother. I'm a music lover, not a friggin' composer or arranger. Leave all that mixing-shmixing stuff to the recording studio guys with the big bucks; and besides, I don't even own four stereos! And if I do own them, who are you, you lousy punk, to have me personally pulling my huge amps out of every corner of me villa? Some kind of artist you are! I'll take my Ricky Martin over this any time of day, thank you.

It is very much possible that Zaireeka is simply an album way, way ahead of its time, and that some day, maybe even soon, people will look back at it the same way they now look at something like The Velvet Underground & Nico. However, this will hardly happen until the mechanism of Zaireeka is being adopted by stereo system producers - with the option of having several CDs played at the same time on the same system becoming widely available. And this, in its turn, will hardly happen until the example of Zaireeka is followed by multiple other artists... and here we come to the nastiest moment of all: as far as I know, even today, which makes almost seven years since its original release, Zaireeka still remains a one of a kind experiment. The Lips themselves never followed it up with anything even remotely similar, and no one has followed in their steps. Which certainly doesn't make their achievement any less unique (in fact, makes it more unique), but just as certainly deprives it of its revolutionary flavour. How's a revolution a revolution if it actually changes nothing?

Maybe yet another derailing factor is that the actual music is not so good. Well, given that the 'concept' here obviously preceded the 'substance', it's to be expected, but still, even the basic, the "meaty" tracks are certainly disappointing when compared to the previous three records. Only 'Riding To Work In The Year 2025' and the closing anthem 'The Big Ol' Bug Is The New Baby Now' (yes, all of the titles are meaningful - you just have to dig deep into the liner notes to evidence in preson all the bizarre twists of Wayne Coyne's inventive-to-the-point-of-sickness mind) seem to be more or less 'completed' compositions - everything else is raw, underwritten (sometimes intentionally) and not very memorable. In terms of textures, Zaireeka is certainly a big departure for the band: it's grander, louder, much more bombastic and sweeping than anything they ever did before; the few reviews of it I've seen never mentioned the word 'prog', most probably out of today's 'musical correctness', but it is without a doubt the most prog-influenced musical statement from Wayne and the boys I've ever heard. If you listen to the orchestral arrangements on 'Riding To Work' and don't hear the echo of Yes' 'And You And I' on there, the only possible answer to that is you probably never heard 'And You And I' in the first place, you trendy nit.

Note that I'm not saying the album is bad - it's just that "ambience" and "sonic effect" are the primary patients here, with "memorable melody" still waiting in the lounge to be treated. And the "effects" are absolutely amazing - at times. Of particular interest is the dynamic explosion in the midst of 'A Machine In India', an acoustic-driven mantra which seems to be steadily piling up energy and then releasing it in one quick flash; and the grotesque musical battle of 'March Of The Rotten Vegetables', where even the obsolete conception of a drum solo returns to life in a rejuvenated, unpredictable manner (yet, once again, brings up memories of old progressive glories; I mean, really, when was the last time you could hear a drum solo, of all things?). And there's a good deal more beautiful moments spread over the four CDs - but, naturally, these don't exactly matter as much as they could behind all the conceptual stuff.

I myself have to make a confession: I don't own four stereos, don't have enough time or strength to borrow four stereos, and in the end, had to simply convert all 4 CDs to MP3 format and let my PC play everything at once. Naturally, this isn't supposed to be right; the different sounds have to come out of different speakers. So you could say I haven't really heard Zaireeka the way I was supposed to hear it, to which I will again reply that there is no one right way to hear Zaireeka and ask you to get over it. Even so, it's still an exceptionally cool experience, and by manipulating volume levels (and progression bars, if you wish) of all the four WinAmps you get to be just as creative as you're intended to be. And yet there was always a nagging feeling that what I'm doing is... well, is taking part in an experiment, which is grand all by itself, but is not nearly as grand as listening to grand music - and that I wasn't doing. Or at least, not doing it with the utmost comfort. Maybe I'm too lazy or something.

All this meaning that, no matter how hard this quadrodiscus begs me to pinpoint it as the Lips' greatest achievement, fulfilling its wish would be way too dishonest for me. Most people go the natural route here and give it, say, an "A+" for overall concept and a "B" or something like that for the actual music - it's possible, for sure, but meets up with two difficulties: a) I'm honestly not sure if the concept really deserves an A+, given that it turned out to be so sterile; and b) I'm honestly not sure if this here music is really separable from the concept. Maybe it would have been reasonable to include a fifth CD that would be "ready-made" - all the music, none of the concept. Then we could at least compare. But on the other hand, this fifth CD would probably just make people throw it on all the time and use the other four as coasters, complaining about the greedy bastards overpricing their most mediocre album by means of a cheap gimmick. As I said - people are lazy.



Year Of Release: 1999

Record rating = 10
Overall rating = 13

In which Wayne Coyne threatens to overshadow the whole world with his universalism. Not that the world gives a damn.


Track listing: 1) Race For The Prize; 2) A Spoonful Weighs A Ton; 3) The Spark That Bled; 4) The Spiderbite Song; 5) Buggin'; 6) What Is The Light; 7) The Observer; 8) Waitin' For A Superman; 9) Suddenly Everything Has Changed; 10) The Gash; 11) Feeling Yourself Disintegrate; 12) Sleeping On The Roof.

This album was supposed to be the Lips' swansong: upon completing Zaireeka, Wayne's immediate reaction to his own creation was "okay, now there's simply nowhere else to go", and thus appeared the idea to go out with a bang - sing one huge, overwhelming swansong in which the last rags of post-modernism would be shed once and for all. After all, the biggest fear of every 'artist' in these days is to attract the label of 'pretentious', and with Zaireeka, the bridges have been burned anyway, so why restrain oneself any further?

Indeed, Wayne Coyne feels so self-assured here that he drops the one thing that had, up to Clouds, been an immanent feature of the band's sound - big distorted guitars. There's plenty of guitars on here, to be sure, but they're soft, jangly, acoustic even rather than jarring-electric, and even so, pretty often get lost in the armada of all those other sounds: pianos, organs, cellos, flutes, string quartets, you name it, much, if not most, of these actually simulated on the band's all-powerful synthesizers, but they're simulated well; after all, this is the tail end of the Nineties, and with a little bit of luck, we can trust technology now. Especially if the technology in question helps produce such truly timeless beauty as is captured on more than half of these tracks.

The Soft Bulletin is often compared to Pet Sounds, and there's more than enough reasons to believe Brian Wilson and his 'teenage symphony to God' has indeed been the primary influence. However, no single Flaming Lips album could ever be reduced to one influence, and Bulletin is no exception. Some of the harmony arrangements and unexpected chord changes, continuing the line of Zaireeka, are fairly reminiscent of Yes (this is also greatly emphasized by Wayne's singing; since he prefers to deliver everything at the highest pitch now, the Jon Anderson comparison works better than ever). Some of the textures are openly Floydish. 'The Spark That Bled' is yet another in a series of direct John Lennon tributes - only this time it's not a lo-fi acoustic ballad but rather a faithful imitation of the wall-of-sound found on some of John's mid-Seventies albums. And if 'Sleeping On The Roof' wasn't directly influenced by some of Brian Eno's instrumentals, also from the mid-Seventies... nah, couldn't have not been influenced. Such coincidences do not exist.

What does all this mean? Nothing but the big truth that was already obvious on every other preceding album - The Soft Bulletin is a well-calculated algorithm, a perfectly oiled machine destined to cause emotional and spiritual uplift. All of its seams are clearly visible, all of its elements are perfectly analyzable. And yet to take it like that and leave it at that would be missing the point. It's not just some stupid hack ripping off his predecessors, it's a truly heartfelt picture of the world (sometimes imaginary world) around Wayne Coyne, and more than that, it's a tremendous example of an optimistic, starry-eyed, hope-for-the-future approach to life. Not sugar-coated, on one hand, not chained by straightahead depression, on the other. It's the kind of thing that is sorely missed today: pure, fresh vibe straight out of the Sixties, but burdened with the cares, worries, and experience of the Nineties.

Need I say none of that would matter if the songs weren't up to the Lips' usual standards? If Coyne's and Drozd's melodies weren't original, but transferred from the Sixties along with the vibe? None of that. The album is just as consistent melodically as Clouds, if not more so. The only real weak spot on the record (which somehow, in my mind, brings it even closer to Pet Sounds by sharing the flaws along with the greatness) is 'The Observer', an instrumental which I would somehow put up with had it been a short one-minute "interlude", but at four minutes long, it claims to achieve independent status as a serious composition in its own rights... but the Lips simply don't have enough chops to produce a truly convincing art-rock instrumental, and 'The Observer' ends up sounding like generic soundtrack muzak. Throw it out, though, and this still leaves us with an entire side of a C-90 tape of excellent material.

Not a single song on here 'rocks', but after the overabundance of rocking material in the first half of the Nineties, it's actually nice to have some relief. So when the album's most uplifting, most anthemic track, the 'Race For The Prize' single, opens the record, its signature sound comes courtesy of swirling, mind-blowing Mellotron imitations rather than crunchy punkish riffage, and I like it! Lyrically, we're once again force-fed some of Wayne's originality: the optimism in question is metaphorically represented by two scientists' concurrent struggle to find a cure for some unknown disease, but count me happy - hey, I'm a scientist (although my interests certainly stray far enough from medicine), and it's certainly a rare thing to see science represented under a positive light in the context of a rock song (hell, in the context of a work of art in general. The continuous struggle between science and art is even more stupid - and harmful - than the struggle between science and religion, you know).

But I digress. 'Race For The Prize' is breathtaking, but not much more so than the other "rhythmic" tracks on the album. 'Buggin', for instance, is totally radiating with positive Sixties energy - the unforgettable 'fly in the air/comb your hair' refrain bottles that essence better than anything else written in a long, long time, and yet all the lyrical analogies between love and mosquito bites are pure Coyne, certainly hard to think of anybody writing lyrics like these in 1967. 'The Gash', with its stately, almost martial, pulsation, and disciplined choral vocals, brings on gospel associations - it'd be funny to compare it with Blur's 'Tender' (a song from the exact same year), although Coyne obviously aims at a huger, "seriouser" impression (the Blur song still reeks of frathouse party atmosphere despite the hugeness).

The 'quiet' songs on The Soft Bulletin are harder to notice behind all the mastodonts, but it's up to them to deliver some of the album's simplest and sweetest pleasures. For instance, the 'I was glad that it didn't destroy you/How sad that would be/'Cause if it destroyed you/It would destroy me' chorus of 'Spiderbite Song'. Again, Wayne is being childish here, childish and naive, yet behind the naiveness hides a whole array of feelings. 'The Spiderbite Song' is at the same time caressing and slightly paranoid, nonchalant and prayer-like. Some people complained about the Lips becoming way too serious on this album - could be, in that there's less direct nonsense/dadaism, but after listening to 'Spiderbite Song', I don't see how anybody could find this newly-found 'seriousness' offensive.

Or maybe by 'seriousness' they mean that the songs are getting too out of hand by being too complex. Bring it on, I say! 'The Spark That Bled' is a total triumph in all of its Wilsonesque/Lennonesque glory, from the quiet orchestrated intro through the main pompous body with the echoey vocals and crescendos and down to the upbeat poppy conclusion (where one vocal line is directly copped from John's 'Borrowed Time', but hey, let's pretend we didn't notice that). 'Suddenly Everything Has Changed' uses a brief - and absolutely unveiled - quotation from 'Yesterday' to miraculous effect. And then, of course, there is 'Feeling Yourself Disintegrate', the grandiose and gorgeous album closer (actually, the album closes with 'Sleeping On The Roof', but due to its ambience, I'd label it a "post-coda" and reserved the Grandiose Exit privilege for 'Feeling...'). The dreamy guitar overdubs on that song alone are worth the guitars' weight in gold, and that's not counting the trance-like harmonious interludes and Wayne's own vocal delivery. 'Love in our life is just too valuable/Oh, to feel for even a second without it' - Jon Anderson, eat your heart out.

It remains only to conclude this review with the obligatory "it's a goddamn shame the world never noticed" observation. Well, then again the world was sort of stumped when Pet Sounds appeared, and it took some time for it to become stabilized as one of the Sixties' biggest achievements. Here's hoping that one day The Soft Bulletin will fill its proper place in the classic rock pantheon as well. And yes, once again the Lips are sort of balancing on the 13/14 border for me here - as is the case with Brian Wilson and his creation, Bulletin is just too self-consciously "meticulous" to gain my upper regions of love and respect. But who cares about my upper regions? Buy this today. At least I can honestly say that it's the most quintessentially BEAUTIFUL album of the Nineties I've heard so far. And hey, even if you are convinced my tastes stink worse than the far end of Meatloaf's rectum, I insist that this statement is still enough of a reason to own The Soft Bulletin today.



Year Of Release: 2002

Record rating = 8
Overall rating = 11

In which the world continues not giving a damn, even if if it were up to me, I'd steer clear of that pink robot, myself.


Track listing: 1) Fight Test; 2) One More Robot/Sympathy 3000-21; 3) Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots Pt. 1; 4) Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots Pt. 2; 5) In The Morning Of The Magicians; 6) Ego Tripping At The Gates Of Hell; 7) Are You A Hypnotist; 8) It's Summertime; 9) Do You Realize; 10) All We Have Is Now; 11) Approaching Pavonis Mons By Balloon.

Not a single tune on this album even remotely approaches "bad", yet I still feel slightly disappointed about this release. Not because I don't enjoy it, but because it makes me worried about the band's future. On the surface, it continues in the vein of The Soft Bulletin: even less noise, even more melody, and, at times, even more accent on self-conscious "gorgeousness". Taken by itself, that ain't no cause for alarm (although I am starting to lament the absence of gritty guitar sound, you know). Alarm starts growing when you realize they're becoming more normal.

Oh, no doubt about it, there is still a huge gap between Yoshimi and today's ultra-commercial easy-listenin' muzak. And, in a way, a slight attempt to bridge that gap can't harm anybody - if the Lips want to finally break through to a big audience, they're bound to compromise. Problem is, no matter what they do, they just won't be able to do it. The big audiences want Shakira and Justin Timberlake. And no matter how much Wayne Coyne is going to seduce them by bringing in elements of techno, thinking up huge quasi-gospel "unifying" anthems, or inventing concepts that borrow from generic Japanese anime, the world isn't ready to compromise. Not today.

Speaking in terms of 'maturation', Yoshimi is the Lips' most seriously "mature" album to this point. No, the band is still going on, despite all those rumours around the release of The Soft Bulletin; and since each and every Flaming Lips album since 1990 can be regarded as a furious attempt to one-up the success of its predecessor, climbing one or two rungs higher, it's only natural that Yoshimi should try to be even grander, even more philosophical, even more stately. Technically, that's just how it is. There are no breathers on here, nothing like a slightly humbler intermission like 'Buggin'; each and every song is, at best, epic and anthemic, at worst, the musical equivalent of a mid-level spiritual painting from the XVth century.

And it gets tiresome. It's the first Lips album I'd easily call "inadequate": it tries to bite off more than it can chew, or, rather, than it should chew. It's one thing when a particular song can really qualify among Coyne's bestest. 'Do You Realize', for instance, is truly breathtaking, and if anything, its vastly pretentious, but fully justified, moralizing reminds me of George Harrison's All Things Must Pass: different musical stylistics, but same kind of religious humility (after all, isn't its lyrical message and the message of 'All Things Must Pass' practically one and the same?), sung in the same ever so slightly detached but deep down inside ever so loving-and-caring way. It really captures the double-barrel pessimistic-optimistic life philosophy of Coyne better than any other song in his catalog, and even if he had enlisted a couple dozen Phil Spectors to over-arrange it even further, I don't think I'd have minded.

Likewise, the title track (first part), which introduces the whole Yoshimi concept, has to be considered the silliest thing on the album, but in a good way: it's a nice reminder of Wayne Coyne's childish innocence, practically the only such reminder on the entire record, and thus manages to hearken back to the days when you could write a rock opera about an armadillo tank and be considered a musical genius instead of a desirable client for a psychiatric hospital. Actually, it's even better than that, because there's nothing more disarming than having your pretentious goals (in this case, further elaborating the age-old problem of soulless technological progress vs. the organic humanistic matter) presented in the form of a harmless kiddie tale, no matter how pop-culture-oriented the actual tale is. There's obviously a lot of irony here, not the least of it being the use of Japanese imagery to illustrate the evils of technology - and what's even funnier, the use of Japanese technology to illustrate the same things, because, like I already said, Yoshimi relies more heavily on electronic gadgets than any previous Lips album. But I got carried away: I actually wanted to state that the title track is very, very pretty, starting from the cool acoustic guitar patterns and ending with all the different tonal patterns used by Wayne to spell out the name 'Yoshimi'.

However, much too often the songs aren't brilliant - and once they stop being brilliant and become simply 'competent', they begin merging with one another and establishing an ambience rather than a set of active melodies. Take a song like 'Ego Tripping At The Gates Of Hell', for instance. Is it good? You betcha. The vocal harmonies are very nicely arranged, and the transition from romantic verse to dreamy chorus, wrapped in that lovely recorder counter-melody, is quite seducing. That is, when you extract the song from the album, sit down, and have a tight listen, with the necessary requirement of approaching it from a non-biased position - otherwise, your brain might just scream 'adult contemporary! generic percussion! MTV slush!' and shut down. But when it's sandwiched in between the equally "slushy" 'In The Morning Of The Magicians' and 'Are You A Hypnotist', both of which are equally well-written but equally lethargically arranged, that makes singling out the advantages even harder.

In other words, if Bulletin was "loud heavenly pop", then Yoshimi is "soft dream pop", and where Bulletin notably hearkened back to the past, Yoshimi notably hearkens back to the future - and I'm not the biggest fan of this future. The only 'upbeat' (if this can be called 'upbeat') track on the album is the instrumental 'Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots Part 2', which is... well, it's a bit weird, although nothing compared to the weirdness of old. It's essentially just a bunch of electronically enhanced percussion with a repetitive rise-and-fall bass pattern over it. And some extra sounds and yells that are supposedly part of the battle. It's fun, but absolutely inessential. The other instrumental, 'Approaching Pavonis Mons By Balloon', closes the album in expectedly grand style, and, okay, that one is fabulous. You'd really have to be a superprofessional to convey the atmosphere of a majestic flight through the clouds and over the landscapes that well. (Although, if you'll pardon me for yet another naggin' comparison, the Beatles had achieved a very similar effect with much more humble means thirty-five years before - with 'Flying').

Now then: if you happen to be a really really devoted Lips fan just flying through, please don't fly away with the idea that I somehow hate this album or consider it unworthy of being attributed to the same band that did Satellite Heart and Zaireeka. By any standard other than the Lips' it'd be a total masterpiece (as evidenced by the rating). And I'm pretty sure that a good bunch of these songs will always be warming my inner parts as constituents of my ever growing playlist - it's just that I'd rather listen to them one at a time instead of lumping them all together. It took me a good deal longer to warm up to it, indeed, than to any other Lips album since 1990, and I'm not sure the process is already over. It's not perfect, but not everything has to be. BUT - and I'm perfectly serious about it - if these guys are to carry on much longer, they desperately need to go back to being a quartet. Today, the lack of a creative guitar player is not a tragedy - yet; tomorrow, it may be the ruin of the Lips, and I'm sure that if you take a careful, all-encompassing, and detached look at their line of evolution since 1996, you'll have no other choice but to agree with me.


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