The Flaming Lips

TrackAlbum
Shine On Sweet JesusIn A Priest Driven Ambulance
Talkin' 'Bout The Smiling
Deathporn Immortality Blues
Hit To Death In The Future Head
Pilot Can At The Queer Of GodTransmissions From The Satellite Heart
Bad DaysClouds Taste Metallic
Waitin' For A Superman (remix)The Soft Bulletin
The GashThe Soft Bulletin
Fight TestYoshimi Battles The Pink Robots
Do You Realize??Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots
The Yeah Yeah Yeah SongAt War With The Mystics
Convinced Of The HexEmbryonic

The Flaming Lips photo 2

Steven Drozd, Wayne Coyne, Michael Ivins

 

 

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Flaming Lips playlist

 

 

Contributor: Marc Fagel

Quick disclosure: While I generally try to use my Toppermost contributions to provide a broad overview of the artist, for the Flaming Lips I’m largely ignoring their early and later years, sticking with the decade-plus during which they were, no hyperbole intended, one of the most inventive and exciting alternative rock bands on the planet. This is not to slight their boisterously psychedelic garage band-oriented albums from the 1980s, nor the more experimental work they’ve released over the past decade and a half; but the music they produced throughout the 1990s and into the early 2000s occupies a different plane entirely.

Of course, even at their creative peak, they could be difficult to listen to – and I mean that not just from an aesthetic/artistic standpoint, but in a literal, physical sense (more on that below). Which makes it all the more impressive that they somehow, almost inexplicably, achieved not just critical success, but some commercial popularity, building a rabid fanbase that has endured to this day (albeit increasingly drawn in more by the band’s live spectacle than by the ongoing addition of truly essential songs to the repertoire).

When the Flaming Lips first appeared in the mid-80s, there was little indication of the stunning sonic masterworks that lay ahead. Their 1984 self-titled EP was a perfectly fun but modest batch of retro-psychedelic garage rock, trippy riffs drenched in reverb from a band with an obvious reverence for Syd Barrett-era Pink Floyd and Nuggets-style compilations. It’s a bit of an anomaly, as then-frontman Mark Coyne stuck around for just that brief moment, shortly thereafter handing the reins to brother Wayne, who would become the charismatic face of the band. (A recent compilation, Scratching The Door, collects the debut EP alongside various demos recorded with Mark still in the band.)

 

For Wayne’s debut as band-leader, 1986’s full-length Hear It Is, the band broadened their sound, both amping it up with a solid dose of Stooges/MC5-oriented proto-punk and mellowing it out with a few quietly understated acoustic tunes. The next few albums followed suit, improving on the template but sticking largely with psychedelic post-punk that could be catchy and cathartic (early stand-outs include Trains, Brains & Rain and Everything’s Explodin’), intermittently trippy and laid-back, and occasionally grating and uninviting.

It was on their fourth proper LP, 1990’s In A Priest Driven Ambulance, that the Lips really started showing some greater ambition. Lead-off tracks Shine On Sweet Jesus (with a presumably unintended nick from Band Aid’s Do They Know It’s Christmas) and Unconsciously Screamin’ are heavy rockers, but reveal a growing pop sensibility beneath the bluster. (The record also saw Coyne shifting from his Iggy Pop-infused growl to a higher-pitched, slightly strained croon more reminiscent of Neil Young, the register he’d largely employ going forward.) The band benefited from the addition of guitarist Jonathan Donahue, who briefly joined the Lips before focusing full-time on his other band, Mercury Rev, which shared a similar musical/lyrical mindset; as well as producer Dave Fridmann, who stuck around far longer (while also producing records for Mercury Rev), and gave the album a much denser sheen than prior recordings.

Ambulance was successful enough to land them a major label deal with Warner Brothers, which to the label’s credit largely gave them a pretty wide berth. And their major label debut, 1992’s Hit To Death In The Future Head, represents a huge leap forward artistically, the band taking advantage of the studio to produce a far more musically ambitious and sonically rich record. The opening track, with the unwieldy title Talkin’ ‘Bout The Smiling Deathporn Immortality Blues (Everyone Wants To Live Forever), is a monster, a frenetic fury of sound wrapped around an earworm hook, blazing guitars and weird sound effects and breathtaking dynamics and that creepy ooh-wop-wop bass vocal line. Other songs offer almost radio-friendly alternative rock just skewed enough to keep things interesting, like the (relatively) straightforward Hit Me Like You Did The First Time; the sweet and jangly Gingerale Afternoon; and the slowed-down bombast of Halloween On The Barbary Coast. There is still plenty of punk-addled noise and psychedelic weirdness, but grounded by Coyne’s newfound joy in (almost) traditional melodies.

The two albums that followed, 1993’s Transmissions From The Satellite Heart and 1995’s Clouds Taste Metallic, built on the Future Head blueprint. The albums saw a few more personnel changes, with new guitarist Ronald Jones stepping in (though, like Donahue, he’d only last for two albums), as well as drummer Steven Drozd, who, alongside Coyne and founding bassist Michael Ivins, would form the core of the band for the remainder of its existence. Both albums offer a comparable mix of off-kilter pop-tinged alt.rock and stranger psychedelia-infused noisy experimentation, Jones’s alternately frenzied and tastefully tuneful guitars largely driving the music. Transmissions had a surprise hit in She Don’t Use Jelly, a silly bit of bubblegum nonsense that somehow permeated pop culture upon its release (i.e. showing up in an episode of Beverly Hills 90210). It’s actually a truly great song, but its cultural saturation and novelty-hit feel keep it off my Top 10. I have a slight preference for the askew yet still joyously infectious Pilot Can At The Queer Of God; nearly as great are lead-off tune Turn It On and the perky Be My Head, pop nuggets just skirting alt.rock radio friendliness.

Clouds Taste Metallic, while not dramatically different from its two predecessors, did start to buff out some of the harder edges and introduce a lusher, orchestrated baroque pop that would dominate their successive releases. It certainly represented their most polished work to date, with some musical and lyrical bizarreness remaining but a handful of delightfully approachable songs. Album closer Bad Days is simply terrific, a post-punk Take This Job And Shove It with a deliriously fun coda and a compelling marching band drumbeat stomp. Psychiatric Explorations Of The Fetus is another fizzy, skewed pop tune along the lines of Pilot Can, while the chipper This Here Giraffe and Christmas At The Zoo preview Coyne’s growing sense of effervescent whimsy.

With Jones’s departure, the remaining members fully embraced the studio-built baroque sound that had started to emerge on Clouds. Their first post-Jones release, 1997’s Zaireeka, stands as the band’s most ambitious and ludicrously complex project, a box set containing 4 CDs intended to be played simultaneously on 4 separate stereos; each disc contained the same songs, but with different elements, resulting in a disorienting vibe given the practical impossibility of cueing them up precisely in sync. (Personally, I opted for a bootleg version remixing the discs into a single CD.) Even absent any stand-alone songs cracking my top 10, there are some wickedly fascinating tunes here. Opener Okay, I’ll Admit That I Really Don’t Understand repeats the title over riveting, booming percussion; Riding To Work In The Year 2025 is bracing, orchestrated sci-fi; closer The Big Ol’ Bug Is The New Baby Now features a spoken-word narrative about Coyne’s dog followed by a sing-along musical coda (shades of Donovan’s Atlantis). Like a 3D film relentlessly thrusting objects toward the camera, there is some gimmickry plainly intended to heighten the strangeness of the 4-CD playback, but even on a single disc it sounds pretty damn cool. Hopefully this will someday receive an official single-CD reissue (a few songs have appeared on compilations and B-sides), but until then fans should hunt it down on YouTube or elsewhere online.

To the record label’s presumptive relief, the band returned to earth for 1999’s The Soft Bulletin, considered by most fans (myself included) to be the band’s artistic triumph. The band embraced their inner progressive rockers and managed to record the definitive post-punk Yes album. Largely synth-driven, it’s a studio wonder, huge and enveloping and multi-layered, a stark contrast to their earlier guitar distortion-fests. Coyne’s lyrics are earnest and heartfelt, unexpected tales of scientists competing to save the world and individuals conquering inner turmoil. While retaining Zaireeka’s sense of experimentation, it’s full of pop hooks and insistent melodies. A veritable greatest hits package unto itself, I’m particularly taken in by the moving Waitin’ For A Superman, a spare, bittersweet ballad; and The Gash, a reverb-drenched anthem that demands to be played at insane volumes in a vast open space. But proggy opener Race For The Prize and the radio-friendly pop Buggin’ are similarly fantastic.

 

The 2002 follow-up, Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots, retained Soft Bulletin’s synth-heavy studio-sheened pop aesthetic, while moving further into outright electronica and trance. Opener Fight Test is a killer pop tune that sticks to the earnest soul-baring of much of Bulletin; a chord progression strikingly similar to Cat Stevens’s Father & Son led to a shared songwriting credit, but the song is pure Coyne. Similarly compelling is the striking ballad Do You Realize??, a love song so unabashed and guileless it’s hard to believe it emanates from the same guys who once wrote a song called Jesus Shootin’ Heroin. Elsewhere, the title track and Ego Tripping At The Gates Of Hell present soft, electronic ambience better suited for an afternoon on the couch with a pair of headphones than for blasting out of big-ass speakers.

 

2006’s At War With The Mystics followed up on Yoshimi’s electronic pop, while reintroducing a few stabs at the more upbeat, energetic guitar-driven rock of their earlier days (albeit still packed in the shiny studio sheen of recent releases). The album’s two opening tunes manage to be both insanely catchy and potentially annoying, love-ˈem-or-hate-ˈem tunes that may divide listeners. The Yeah Yeah Yeah Song buries its relentlessly jubilant bubblegum hook amidst a million grating Yeahs; for me, the wondrous pop wins out, but others may be less forgiving. And Free Radicals offers falsetto vocals over stripped-down funk, a sonic sequel to Prince’s Kiss; again, I’m taken in by the song’s charm. Other less divisive stand-outs include the fizzy hooks of The W.A.N.D. and the melodic Mr. Ambulance Driver. (An expanded edition of the album appends a surprisingly faithful cover of Bohemian Rhapsody.)

Alas, after this brilliant run, the Flaming Lips began a slide into releases which, while never less than innovative, lacked the consistent songcraft of prior work. The past fifteen years have certainly seen the band create some interesting music, but there have also been some real head-scratchers. Recent work generally falls into three buckets: relatively straight Flaming Lips albums; tributes, soundtracks, and other novelties; and collaborative efforts.

Among the more traditional releases, 2009’s Embryonic starts out strongly enough, with the creeping groove of Convinced Of The Hex a solid tune suggesting a continuation of Mystics. But the balance of the 90-minute sprawling opus, while blending the lighter electronica of the last few albums with some noisier bits recalling the band’s earliest days, is a more challenging listen.

 

2013’s The Terror likewise opens with a decent-enough track in Look…The Sun Is Rising, before splaying out into headphone-friendly weirdness. However, I have yet to wrap my head around 2017’s electronic experimentation-heavy Oczy Mlody or 2019’s indecipherable narrative King’s Mouth (featuring the Clash’s Mick Jones).

The Lips have also recorded a remarkable number of covers in recent years, including complete remakes of Dark Side Of The Moon and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (both perfectly entertaining, with various cameo appearances, but hardly essential), while contributing tracks to tribute albums honoring everyone from John Lennon to Guided by Voices. They have also managed not one but two Christmas-themed albums during this period. Interestingly, some of the band’s most memorable original songs of the past 20 years have been quirky soundtrack contributions, like delightfully perky tunes written for the SpongeBob SquarePants Movie and what I have to assume is a terrible film called Good Luck Chuck.

Finally, the Flaming Lips have collaborated with numerous artists over the past decade and a half, not just on the Dark Side and Sgt. Pepper tributes, but on myriad side projects. 2012’s Flaming Lips and Heady Fwends offers an interesting line-up, including Bon Iver, Tame Impala, Nick Cave, and My Morning Jacket’s Jim James, though it’s an often cacophonous and impenetrable affair; while earlier this year they teamed up with psychedelic duo Deap Vally for a colorfully eccentric blend of pop, psychedelia, and electronica (attributed to Deap Lips). Meanwhile, they served as the backing band for hardcore fan Miley Cyrus on her deliriously strange 2015 release Miley Cyrus & Her Dead Petz.

Though the band’s provocative and peripatetic output over the last decade-plus can be take-it or leave-it, they recently dropped one of their most song-oriented and approachable albums in years. American Head, a memoir of sorts recalling Coyne’s drug-addled youth, is largely quiet and understated, reprising the balladry of Soft Bulletin and Yoshimi, an album to absorb in a quiet room as the sun sets. It has moments of transcendent beauty, and while it may again lack the killer single ripe for a Top 10 entry, or a rollicking rave-up in the vein of their 90s run, it’s far more listenable (at least for the band’s less indulgent fans) than anything they’ve produced over the past decade, confirming the Flaming Lips still has a lot to offer.

 

 

The Flaming Lips photo 3

 

The Flaming Lips official website

Psychiatric Explorations Of The Ever Enlarging Brain
Flaming Lips fan site with Discography

“Staring At Sound: The True Story Of Oklahoma’s Fabulous Flaming Lips” by Jim DeRogatis (Broadway, 2006)

The Flaming Lips on NPR

Pitchfork Flaming Lips page

The Flaming Lips biography (AllMusic)

Marc Fagel is a recovering lawyer living outside San Francisco with his wife and his obscenely oversized music collection. He is the author of the recently-published rock lover’s memoir “Jittery White Guy Music”. His daily ruminations on random albums in his collection can be seen on his blog of the same name, or by following him on twitter. Marc’s previous posts include Neil Young, My Morning Jacket, Raveonettes, Phish, Luna, Jesus and Mary Chain, Feelies, Genesis, Wilco, King Crimson and Brian Eno.

TopperPost #910

1 Comment

  1. David Lewis
    Oct 14, 2020

    I’d heard of the Flaming Lips. But not listened to them. Based on what I’ve heard so far I’ve missed out.
    I enjoyed this one.

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