Monday, February 22, 2010

The Flaming Lips - Embryonic

Rating: B+

I was always a nerd growing up. My middle school and high school years were anchored by a group of friends with whom I would watch "The X-Files" on Friday nights. We played Dungeons & Dragons, Magic: The Gathering, and Hero Quest, debated endlessly about Star Wars and even nonsense like Alien Autopsy: Fact or Fiction? It's fair to say that my dorkdom level was pretty high.

Then I went off to college, and I had a suitemate who frequently played They Might Be Giants. And I realized: I fucking hate They Might Be Giants. The inanity of "The sun is a mass / Of incandescent gas" reviled me as much as any stupid, absurd lyrics that Britney Spears, The Spice Girls, Brian McKnight, or any other similar hackneyed brutal lyricist of that day. I mean, there are polysyllabic words in there, and science terms, but that doesn't mean it's smart. And even if it is smart, it doesn't take you any place; it doesn't make you feel anything. I learned then that although I enjoy dorky media in many forms, music is not one of them.

So I took the recommendation of The Flaming Lips' Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots with a grain of salt. Just look at the title. A concept album about a Japanese girl fighting off hordes of robots from outer space ("and she's gotta be strong to fight them / so she's taking lotsa vitamins")? I knew I would hate it. But I didn't - it's a great album. No one in rock is more earnest than Lips lead singer Wayne Coyne - and if anything, that's understatement, not hyperbole. He sells you on Yoshimi, on the struggle against pink robots that is in all of us, in our noble but doomed battle with our own mortality. Or something - some of the lyrics don't make any sense. But dammit, Coyne means them.

Embryonic couldn't be more different than Yoshimi. But it's undeniably a Flaming Lips album, if that makes any sense. The pop sensibilities of Yoshimi (and its predecessor, The Soft Bulletin) are completely stripped away. In its place is a swirling morass of psychedelia, and of course the trademark lips weirdness. This album is strange, very strange. There are odd keyboard and guitar sounds, theremin, and what sounds like a cell phone distorted by an electrical pulse. "Powerless" features an extended guitar solo not bound by rhythm or tone. Karen O of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs adds some over-the-phone call-and-response on "I Can Be a Frog" (animal noises) and stellar closer "Watching the Planets." The music was always odd, but without the pop anchorings it threatens to fly away.

It doesn't though, and that's the strongest suit of the album. Sure, at times the orbit threatens to float off into space, especially during dreamy tunes like "Evil," "If," and "Virgo Self-Esteem Broadcast," but there always a thumping, percussive track to punctuate your trance: "Your Bats," or "See The Leaves," or "Aquarius Sabotage." The album is 18 tracks and over an hour, but it has good pace and variety so it doesn't feel bloated. Coyne's vocals add to the variety; his high-pitched cracking warble only shows up as a counterpoint to Karen O's animal noises on "I Can Be a Frog" and to the disturbing subject matter on "Evil." He takes a darker edge on "Convinced of the Hex" and "See the Leaves," and on several tunes his voice is distorted.

A final item of note is the lyrics. Because the Lips' music is often poppy and uplifting, it's easy to miss that the words aren't always as cheery. Tunes like "Feeling Yourself Disintegrate" and "Do You Realize?" would be dark without the gorgeous pop orchestration enveloping them. Since Embryonic dials down the pop factor, the darkness shrouds the album, putting a different edge on the Lips' common theme of finding the beauty in the fragility of life. A fine example is on "See the Leaves," where Coyne sings "See the leaves / They're dying again / See the sun / It's trying again." Closer "Watching the Planets" finishes on a strong theme of existential questions: "what is the reason?" Coyne asks amid "burning the bible," "watching the planets," and "finding the answer." The key thrust of the album comes from multi-instrumentalist Stephen Drozd, who provides the musical backdrop, weirdness, and genius behind Embryonic.

Embryonic is a fascinating psychedelic journey and a worthy addition to the Flaming Lips' excellent catalog.

Buy it from Amazon:
The Flaming Lips Site

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