2006 / Music

Review: New Flaming Lips Album Is More Abstract Vision

Oklahoma Trio Continues To Specialize In Psychedelic Rock

The Flaming Lips are in the catbird seat.

Photo: Warner Brothers Record

Photo: Warner Brothers Record

The last few years have seen the Oklahoma-reared psychedelic pop trio go on quite a run. They won a Grammy, toured with Beck and have literally crowd-surfed while inside a giant plastic bubble at rock festivals around the world. A DVD documentary about them came out last year and a new tell-all biography just hit the shelves. (And the group is still working on a homemade sci-fi feature film that’s been in various stages of development for years.)

But now, the band has a new record, “At War With The Mystics,” that is charged with the precarious task of keeping this unlikely winning streak of theirs alive.

The album comes as the band has likely reached its commercial and artistic pinnacle. All of this has come about because the group’s preceding albums — “The Soft Bulletin” and “Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots” — were a pair of masterpieces that imbued some pop hooks with the band’s silly psychedelic affectations. They had a unique vision of music and it was a combination that was critical in plucking the band out of obscurity and putting their names forward as one of alternative rock’s few elder statesmen that are still making great albums.

That is, until now.

“At War With The Mystics” is a much more difficult album to get through than the previous two. For one, it is a more trying listen, largely because it no longer seems to overflow with the easygoing enthusiasm its immediate predecessors did. (This was one of the most curious dichotomies of this 20-year-old band’s new songs: the music always beamed with joyfulness even though the lyrics — especially in the case of “The Soft Bulletin” — dealt with darker and/or sober takes on complicated issues like mortality, friendship and love.)

Once again, the brand new songs’ lyrical content can be grim at times, but with more a political point barely veiled behind its Lips-ian “what does it all mean” pathos. The problem here is the music, which is sometimes inconsistent. The new record is much closer to “Yoshimi” in that the tracks are elaborate and abstract, occasionally crudely arranged jigsaw puzzles of sound, electro-clash and Peter Frampton-esque “talking guitar.” The band pulls together separate musical pieces or sound effects that by bending a corner or two, hang together — sometimes well but sometimes not.

The biggest distinction between “Mystics” and “Yoshimi” is that the core melodies are clearly stronger on “Yoshimi.” Some cuts on the album, like “The Yeah Yeah Yeah Song,” “Free Radicals” and “Mr. Ambulance Driver” are built on only a pastiche of odd effects. Elements of the epic orchestral bombast of “The Soft Bulletin” rear up on the tracks but only support the barely-there melody. A Cat Stevens-y cheerful acoustic guitar strum is tucked inside “The Yeah Yeah Yeah Song” and some pleasing electric piano keeps the metaphorical lights flashing on the very laid-back “Mr. Ambulance Driver.”

Reinforcing the different vibe coming off these songs is that during “The Yeah Yeah Yeah Song” and “Mr. Ambulance Driver,” Lips’ frontman and creative leader Wayne Coyne sings many of the verses in a register lower than the chipper warble that he’s known for. His voice begins to climb higher, but it sets the album apart.

“Free Radicals” is a real curiosity. It’s not much of a song at all, relying mostly on clips of a jagged guitar lick or keyboard squiggle as the listener waits for the downbeat to come. It’s a web of dissembled fragments of sound on which one can hear little aspects of Prince and Parliament-Funkadelic. Above all, the track’s clearest next of kin would be a cut off of the “Midnite Vultures” LP by the Lips’ former touring partner Beck. Coyne even tries out a scratchy falsetto that isn’t quite as shrill as the one that Beck used on that record when he was pretending to be a sleazy soul singer.

“Haven’t Got A Clue” is an cheap putdown song aimed at an unnamed celebrity. There’s a crappy techno beat and acoustic guitar strum that is really beneath them. As for the muse behind the song, maybe Coyne is singing about Beck (or possibly Michael Jackson?) when he sings “Ever time you plead your case/ I want to punch you in the face.” Giving clues that he’s taking aim at Beck — either consciously or unconsciously — is the fluttering LSD trip sound effect used on the song that is very similar to one used on Beck’s “Sea Change.”

But as Beck wouldn’t say, this album isn’t a lost cause. “The Sound Of Failure” is a midtempo, surprisingly funky number. As it gradually builds momentum and more instruments enter the mix, a clear melody is hammered out by a skinny, fuzzed out guitar butting up against a booming wall of bass. “Vein Of Stars” is more mournful and keyboard heavy. It’s equal parts “In The Court Of The Crimson King”-era King Crimson and the Zombies’ “Odessey and Oracle.”

“The W.A.N.D.” is the most aggressive song on the album (and perhaps the best) with a fuzzed-out guitar that repeats a dive-bombing lick. Similarly bombastic, “It Overtakes Me” is little more than a chorus of somersaulting guitar and bass gussied up with vocal harmonies at a range of pitches. It’s simple but effective.

What sets these songs apart from some of their companions is the sense, musically, that they are all working toward a common end. There’s a verifiable melody no matter how delicate or slow-moving.

“The Wizard Turns On …” is all melody and is the closest the Lips have ever come to wholesale swiping from psychedelic rock granddaddies Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side Of The Moon.” The instrumental serves as a great musical interlude, the track’s “Bitches Brew” electric piano and thudding bass lines could have come from Roger Waters’ more surrealistic daydreams.

For the Lips themselves, the last few years might have seemed like a daydream. The band emerged from exile in the rock underground to be if not a bankable attraction, at least well-respected visionaries whose albums were a shared treasure if you knew what was up.

“At War With The Mystics” spells the end of this cycle for the band. The record isn’t a flop, but it shows their creative vision is getting a bit hazy.

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Note: David’s nationally syndicated music column, Soundbytes, appeared in the Entertainment section of all Internet Broadcasting websites. This column was originally published there.

©Copyright 2006 by David Hyland. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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