Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Oh, Oh, Oh, Embryonic. I think I love you.

So, the new Flaming Lips album is here and it's been playing in my car non-stop since I got it.

Pitchfork hailed the album with a surprising 9.0 rating and said, "The record is extremely dense, initially overwhelming, but unusually rewarding upon repeat listens." Which I agree with completely. First listen of this album would scare most people away, but a few days later, the music seems to wrap around your brain and small pieces start to make sense and then the whole thing comes together as a single symphonic piece. It reminds me of Radiohead's OK Computer in its motif-uniformity.

The album has a loose psychedelic vibe like early Lips material but is based around heavy bass and electronic sounds which makes it fit in the post-Yoshimi era. At the same time, it feels completely fresh: not acid-inspired tales of superhero children with giant heads or tall tales about magicians and space stations. The stories on the album feel almost personal but told through a muffled filter, in an third-person manner with an invariably female protagonist. This being the followup more to the Christmas on Mars soundtrack then the underrated (in my view anyway) At War With The Mystics, it has that visual quality, as if the band is scoring a film about a single character going through a series of trials and troubles.

Initially, I was weary of the extreme manipulation of Wayne Coyne's voice. Although he's no Bon Iver, Wayne's falsetto, though not technically strong, is one of the Flaming Lips' ramshackle strengths. I didn't like the idea of burying it under waves of feedback like in the mesmerizing album opener, "Convinced of the Hex." (Which - by the way - was my first taste of the new record when they played it on the Colbert Report a few weeks ago. My first thought then: "These guys have LOST IT.")

But even after my first "WTF?!" listens, that sweet bassline from "the Hex" started showing up unprompted within my brain, along with the similarly haunting riff from "See the Leaves," the best song about the apocalypse I ever heard. It's almost as if the album comes up from behind and surprises you with its strengths rather then revealing itself through repeated listens, like say, every other piece of music ever produced.

I remember thinking the spacey "Evil" was weird and too long, but now the strangely poignant lyrics ("I wish I could go..Go back in time.. I would warn you... These people are evvvvvvil..") and the yearning gaps in the music make it all the more powerful. And I'm completely surprised about how much I love "I Can Be a Frog," which is two minutes long and brilliant. How they did that is beyond me.

The biggest two-part punch in the album comes firmly in the middle, tracks 9-10 in this 18-track epic. The brooding, dark, bassline hinted at in early songs comes full force in the sublime "Powerless" and climaxes in "The Ego's Last Stand." Rarely does an album work so well that similar sounds come in and out of focus and morphs from weird to something that sounds practical back to something that is completely out-there. The idea of inserting segue tracks in a long record is nothing new, but it's not something The Lips have done before to my knowldge. The short "freakout" tracks (Wayne's own word) serve to punctuate the emotions from the traditional "songs," but I think the intention here was to sever the cord of typical album structure and have the whole thing be listened to as one. In that regard, it works very well. In fact, the transition from album closer "Watching the Planets" back to "Convinced of the Hex" is one of my favorites, as if the band is daring you to listen to something else.

This is as close to an intimate performance of "Planets" as you can find, for the awesome radio station KCRW,

The album doesn't lose steam towards the end, either (a feat many bands can't quite get these days). Take, for example, "Worm Mountain" which is so overflowing with ideas that it seems almost too much, until you start to pick out the various pieces and realize each one has a power of its own and without any of them, the song would just not be as good. And one of my favorite songs on the album,"Silver Trembling Hands," an almost traditional yet equally awesome song that would have fit nicely on Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots comes in at Track 16!

It's amazing to think that thing this band - in various incarnations - have been together for over 20 years (The Flaming Lips initially formed in 1983, with Wayne's brother, Mark, on lead vocals, first album released 1986) and still have so much to say! Embryonic is their twelfth studio album, with a thirteenth, a full album cover of Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon already announced.

Though Embryonic is dense and hard to swallow on first listens, it's a true gem for fans of The Flaming Lips. It's a unique and incredible band that can produce a genre-defining shift in direction and tone every couple albums but that's exactly what these guys have done, notably with the incredible The Soft Bulletin (which I still listen to A LOT) and the mainstream breakthrough Yoshimi, here's another one, even more challenging and thus rewarding than anything that came before it.