In 1997, the Flaming Lips released Zaireeka, a collection of ten tunes on four discs intended to be played simultaneously. A couple of my friends brought the set and their boom boxes over to my house and it took us about an hour to get the thing to play in something close to sync. It was an odd experience. Eight channels of sound enveloped us, and after a while the CD players drifted out of synchronization, creating a bizarre interaction of sounds. That might be a pretty good way to describe the Lips, although it would be selling them short.
In a pop music world, where too much music sounds the same, the Flaming Lips sound like no one else. To begin with, theres singer/guitarist Wayne Coynes voice, a strange, high-register instrument that makes Neil Young sound like Howlin Wolf (the band did a version of "After the Gold Rush" for The Bridge, a Young tribute disc on Caroline Records). Then, there are the bizarre sounds that fill their discs: Kick drums that sound -- intentionally, I assume -- like wet cardboard, guitar lines that might have been played by a seven-year-old who learned them minutes before the session, and odd, sometimes harsh, often unidentifiable noises that pop up throughout their songs.
While these things might add up to irritating, amateurish recordings in other hands, they are transformed into something unusual and beautiful by the Flaming Lips. Their discs feel loose and baggy the first time through, but with each audition, more details fall into place. Things that sound like gaps or miscalculations are, upon repeated listening, tied together by some small element of sound. The three discs with which Im most familiar, Clouds Taste Metallic (1995), The Soft Bulletin (1999), and Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots, their newest, are all rich with sonic gems that reward your patience.
Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots uses some of the same keyboard sounds as The Soft Bulletin, but this time the group adds some funk to them. The drums have a more relaxed feel, and the bass hits a fluid, dance-music groove. While Yoshimi uses the Mellotron-like keyboards that were so effective in The Soft Bulletin, theres also a bit of '70s funk synth, echoing Stevie Wonders records from that era. Yet, because these musical elements and a host of others are filtered through the eccentric musical sensibilities of the three musicians in the band and their producer, Dave Fridmann, you certainly wont mistake it for a funk disc.
The key to understanding the Flaming Lips, especially on their last two discs, is to wait for the details to come together like a puzzle. Those details can seem nonsensical at first. Whats a drum track that sounds like it was lifted from a dance tune doing in a tune thats clearly not a dance tune? How can a keyboard line evoke Stevie Wonder in a song that doesnt otherwise sound like him? And why do those and so many other elements -- thrown together in a big pop-music stew -- work together to create something so new and unexpected?
Although Coyne insists, "Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots is not a concept album," he wrestles here with a number of weighty themes, such as responsibility, mortality, the nature of love, and what it is that makes us human. Some of his lyrics may at first seem frivolous, as in "One More Robot/Sympathy 3000-21," where a robot begins to have feelings of love. Of course, Coyne is really asking whether human beings can truly know love. "Fight Test" challenges us to decide whether the things we believe in are convictions or merely fashions -- and whether well defend them if we have to.
Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots isnt quite as focused as The Soft Bulletin was. The instrumental "Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, pt. 2" fits into the overall sonic scheme of the disc, but it never really gels and throws the flow off a bit. Despite this minor, brief stumble, this is a disc that you can get lost in and discover new things in every time you listen. This is a band that assumes its audience is intelligent, so it feels free to take risks. The recording isnt really of audiophile quality -- there could be a little more space in the mix, for instance. When I listen to it, however, I dont even think about the recording quality. Im too busy trying to catch every bit of the inspired noise contained in its 48 minutes.
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