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The Flaming Lips Still On Fire

Colin Rich | Monday, November 16, 2009

Critical respect and commercial viability make strange if not unlikely bedfellows in the music world, and nowhere is this contradistinction more apparent than in the modern rock’s psychedelic stratosphere.  More often judged by album sales than album reviews, mainstream success comes infrequently to those that carve a psychedelic niche rather than appeal to the broader rock proclivities of most listeners. What distinguishes psychedelia from other alternative rock is an instrumentalist view of technology and an ability to maximize sound through creative editing and a synthesis of traditional and futuristic pop conventions. Some of the most benevolent yet rapturous aural assaults of modern rock come not from the three-piece groups with a prominent lead guitar, but from the dizzying array of strings and synths characteristic of an entrancing psychedelic dissonance.
      Enter The Flaming Lips, a band as renowned for its critical acclaim as its immense commercial popularity over the past decade. Twenty-six years young, this formidable and fluxing gang of Oklahomans is currently a quartet that pivots on the direction of front man Wayne Coyne. These Dust Bowlers can attribute their status as an indie rock paragon to their longevity and the artistic breakthrough of 1999’s enthrallingly complex “The Soft Bulletin.”  Lauded by fans and critics alike, this multi-faceted masterpiece drew primarily from the Beach Boys’ “Pet Sounds” for inspiration, utilizing synthesizers, drum machines and studio manipulation to depart from the band’s budding punk artistry. Succeeded by 2002’s “Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots” and 2006’s “At War with the Mystics,” this euphoric triumvirate formed the basis for the band’s popularity, resonating with college youths and rock enthusiasts versed in classic psychedelic outreaches ranging from Pink Floyd to The Who. Thematically these three albums were built as one – they all speak with a hopeful optimism about characters who battle to achieve their destiny, overcome internal vices intrinsic to humanity, and seek to transcend a world fraught with wickedness.
Now, 10 years after the release of “The Soft Bulletin,” the latest Lips release demonstrates another departure from the folds of their established conventions. The 12th studio release and first double album from the band, the aptly titled “Embryonic” is drenched in a sobering shower of evil, defeat and resignation to the inevitable.  “Convinced of the Hex,” the album’s opener and closest semblance of a single, utilizes all of the musical effects inherent to a Lips production, but delineates the album from its sanguine, if not thematically naïve, predecessors almost immediately with lyrics like “She says I like your theory/But it won’t pass no test.”  Perhaps a refutation of earlier optimism, other song titles suggest a similar distinction from past glories such as “Evil,” a forlorn appeal to going back in time to correct one’s inequities, “Powerless,” and disc two opener, “The Ego’s Last Stand.” The album also features guest appearances by The Yeah Yeah Yeah’s Karen O, whose vocals were recorded by Wayne Coyne via phone, and MGMT, and does hit several pop highs with “I Can Be a Frog” and “Silver Trembling Hands.”
“Embryonic” seeps slowly out of the stereo, wrapped in a cautious self-awareness that poses the most obvious difference from the triumphant signature ballads of The Flaming Lips. The album adds a solemn gravity to the typically atmospheric levity associated with the Lips’ brand of psychedelic musicianship. Yet these differences, whether they prove a definitive reorientation away from the band’s buoyant disposition or an ephemeral exploration of the murkier undercurrents of human nature, still make for an enjoyable album. Currently enjoying positive critical reception, the litmus test for “Embryonic” pivots around the opinion of Lips fans, who face a new sound and potentially a new direction from one of America’s preeminent psychedelic rock groups.