Tuesday, October 6, 2009

The Flaming Lips - Embryonic

Ed. My thoughts continue to fluctuate on this record – it could very well be that it’s abhorrent, or that it’s light of truth – but good or bad, I have been listening to it quite a bit – which begs the question of whether that is an indicator of quality. Maybe I just have a form of album-set Stockholm syndrome. But, based on recent conversations it's felt right to look at Radiohead's progression - from the slightly still poppy-prog-rock leaning Ok Computer (there were at least still radio singles on it) progressing into the very standoffish, left turn, take-it-or-leave-it delivery of Kid A. ....so if Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots is their Ok Computer...perhaps Embryonic is....

Anyhow, on with the review…

October 2009 – Embryonic, by the Flaming Lips (Warner Bros.)

Ryan said it was mostly just boring, but I think it might be growing on me.

I say this to Trever, who nods from across the table in morning clatter at the pub. Mimosas and waffles under a discussion of persevering artists and the boxes they are inevitably placed in by the public.

“I have friends who are obsessed with the Flaming Lips,” Trever offers, “And they said they weren’t that impressed with their last record.”

Their last record, (2006’s) At War with the Mystics was the Oklahoma City-born freak-punk/acid-pop collective’s 11th full length. Last year they toasted the release of their homemade yuletide sci-fi “epic” Christmas On Mars as well as twenty five years as a band.

Their beloved bell-blasted hymn “Do You Realize?” was recently named the official song of their home state; so perhaps that honor, coupled with Embryonic’s autumn release, it can close the book on this band’s Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots-era: in which the box with which we’ve placed them has gotten stale with the same orange day-glo splattered perception of armies of bunnies and Santa Clauses, human-sized bubbles walking on crowds and the flaw of Mystics, as felt by Trever’s friends, for trying too hard to recapture the magic of said-2002-release.

I posit to Trever that maybe the band, admittedly known for many transitions and phases (from their Butthole Surfer-cribbing early punk/noise days, to their drugged out hazey fuzz rock, to their rhythm-heavy inversed grunge stance, to the formidable Soft Bulletin (’98)) started to get itchy in their current costumes and decided it was time for another reinvention.

Mystics seemed too conscious of audience perception/anticipation, or, the idea of the Flaming Lips as: booming crescendos, anthemic choruses, crashing cymbals and philosophic lyrics that questioned the nature of man, of beast and of the universe. Thus it came off as almost self-parody. Now, they truly are questioning, themselves and the universe –they are embracing a freedom beyond the mischief of confetti typhoons and hundred foot projections of naked ladies over loud noisy music – the freedom they seek on Embryonic is to destroy that perspective and give you something that couldn’t be anticipated.

But you listen to it much differently when you hear singer Wayne Coyne lay it out, half affirmation/half confessional, that he wants what he calls “freedom to fail.” Embryonic is spaced out, it is murky, it gets down and it digs into a subterranean realm flooded with bass and clangy in-the-red guitars, vocals can be unintelligibly muddled by echoes or feedback, structures are exploded out and shy away from typically hurrah choruses to spooky ruminations that step (not leap) steadily (not hurriedly) amongst sparsely dressed instrumentation. It’s refreshing in the sense that there isn’t so much going on that you’re able to really take in its essence – the problem being, it’s often a dark groove that haunts and hovers like the uneasy peace of a starless night.

“Convinced of the Hex” is a low booming groove bouncing under marching drums, a monotone mantra chorus and periodic synth shrieks – and it’s possibly the closest thing to a catchy single, save the later-arrival of the unavoidably Animal Collective recalling adrenaline pumping “Silver Trembling Hand” which actually gives way to a beautiful space-jazz groove under the chorus.

Some songs aren’t songs, but interludes varying from harp-rocked noise storms (“Aquarius Sabotage”) to hypnotic, drumless affairs with fuzzy keyboards clouding mathematician Thorsten Wormann discussing polynomial rings. Which means when you get to the monstrous drum fits over the rise and fall groove of “Your Bats” you’re either in or you’re out. And, if you’re still in, you’re led to the long scraping, searching “Powerless,” which sounds downright nightmarish with its shivering synth eruptions and lurching bass lines. Still in? How about a “Sonny and Cher”-inspired back and forth where Coyne (perhaps unpacking too obviously the band’s current identity search) projecting upon all the different things and animals an admired female prescence can "be", with Wayne singing in a clear tone with Yeah Yeah Yeah’s singer Karen O. responding in telephone-muffled imitations of roaring jaguars and howling monkeys. Still in? Take the adversarial, ear-suffocating/soul-shaking bass vibrations of a deliberately noise-band inspired jam featuring members of synth-poppers MGMT.

Repeat the mantra – "We can be free..." with “freedom to fail.” What does that mean to you in context of Embryonic? What does that mean to you before you hear this record – and what does it mean to you now that you’ve actually listened to it?

“I don’t know,” I said to Trever, before taking my first heavy, headphone-bound listen, “a lot of it sounds like jamming demos.” Whoa, that bad?—was his first reaction. Well, not necessarily.

And, is it boring? Embryonic is downbeat, spread out, creepy and confrontational – and it breaks through the Yoshimi box. Is some of it boring…well, yes. We’re feeling recorded growing pains. But it’s a necessary chapter for any Lips fan. Embryonic is the dark storm in which the pilots decide not to land the plane, but to fly through and then change course. By providing us more spur of the moment jams (with the rough sound of a demo), we’re being able to see inside the cockpit, and feel the new, scary, exciting sounds and ideas born at the moment the pilots decided to change course. Admittedly, and yes, as a forewarning, the first couple listens can be a bit arduous – like stylistic jet-lag, or a buzz kill.

During “Evil,” I remember feeling sadness, true disconsolate sadness at the dirge-like ballad of evil overcoming good and hearing a new kind of pain (and defeat) in Coyne’s voice. But the middle section eventually thrilled me, gave me that same grin and revelry that noisy shambolic experimental rock bands from Velvet Underground to Lightning Bolt give me – and “Silver Trembling Hands” winds up being so optimally placed, towards the end, shaking off the slower moments leading up to it.

Just as the Flaming Lips have always been considered weird, they have always been considered endearing…encouraging and inspiring. The question will be, how many will be able to find those feelings in the murk of Embryonic, because, like I said when I’d heard it was “boring,” that, I’d thought I’d still find something to like, there’s still something to find in Embryonic. Boring or not. Maybe that something is over-indulgence, or panic, or an artistic misstep. But it must be allowed, the possibility, that this is the record a lot of Lips fans could have been waiting for; after 25 years of freedom, finally, the freedom to fail.

How many will hear failure? As the chorus to “Convinced of the Hex” goes: “…that’s the difference between us.”

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