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The Flaming Lips


[Warner Bros.; 2009]

By ; October 16, 2009 

Purchase at: Insound (Vinyl) | Amazon (MP3 & CD) | iTunes | MOG

Wayne Coyne is not as weird as you think. Dedicated Flaming Lips fans certainly want to think otherwise, but at the heart of Coyne’s best work is a strong, unique songcraft that is just as moving in the acid space of the Flaming Lips as a stripped down acoustic guitar number. It is no wonder that when Wayne and the band step out from the veil of weirdness, they often achieve their best results. There is no other way to explain how over a decade after “that Jelly song” earned the Flaming Lips their only real mainstream success, “Do You Realize??” became the official Oklahoma state rock song. That’s right, Oklahoma is now cooler than your state.

With this in mind, we take on the Flaming Lips new album, Embryonic. This is an album best suited for front to back listening in order to fully absorb. For non-fans, this can be extraordinarily daunting due both to the density of the sound and the length of the album. For those listeners, judgment of the album will come down to the quality of the songs. There are some quality songs here, that’s for sure. However, the band has buried much of the melody under layers of ambience. In some cases this works to make the songs more forceful. Take the opener, “Convinced Of The Hex.” There is a lot of stuff going on, but the listener isn’t overwhelmed by the beeps and chimes, and consequently the song is able to breathe. This isn’t the case elsewhere. On “Worm Mountain” the band doesn’t allow the song much space. The song struggles to keep its head above the surface, and its impact on the listener is greatly reduced. The fate of most of the songs on Embryonic come down to how much room there is for all the various sounds Coyne has put into the mix.

One of the most noticeable traits of the album is how low the vocals are in the mix. For fans that joined up after the Soft Bulletin or Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots, this will come as a surprise. This is arguably a good thing, as Wayne Coyne’s voice is in same the category as Neil Young’s, which is to say that while it’s very recognizable, it’s not very conventionally “good.” This reduces that issue considerably, even if it means that the lyrics are nearly impossible to hear. Again, this is arguably a good thing, as many of Wayne’s lyrics amount to barely more than random disconnected thoughts. It also shifts more focus onto sonic atmosphere, which is the album’s thematic crux.

Good Flaming Lips songs find their niche within the soundscapes the band provides them. On Embryonic, the songs don’t settle into their places as much as they fight for elbow room. This creates tension, which gives the album a punch that the Flaming Lips haven’t had since the mid-nineties. The downside of this is it doesn’t give the album much of a flow, and with the album running well over an hour, this is a major concern. The Flaming Lips certainly are the kind of band that can produce interesting atmospheres, however they are slumping here. While many of the soundscapes stand out when the track is isolated, they just blend together when listening to the album as a whole. Nothing stands out other than the occasional song that is just too strong to remain hidden under the weight of the ambience.

What this means is that Embryonic won’t be sharing the same lofty air as Flaming Lips classics of the past ten years like The Soft Bulletin or Yoshimi, but that isn’t to say the album is a letdown. Coyne and company are trying to work within a sonic vein that they haven’t tapped yet; a venture worth pursuing. The album sounds like the Flaming Lips, but it doesn’t sound like an album they’ve already done. And furthermore, the album is definitely interesting. However, the Flaming Lips have just been caught doing what even the best bands are apt to do when they get ambitious; they try too hard as they traverse the wild and bizarre. The album just can’t stand under its own immense weight. It’s not just a matter of album length; even if edited down to a normal running length, most listeners would be incapable of pulling all the various sounds and ideas together into a cohesive sound. This is the sound of a veteran band breaking out of its jail cell, not the reinvention that is being strived for, and this is due to the overstepping of the band’s leader. Had Wayne Coyne just accepted that he’s an oddball songsmith instead of the wizard of weird, Embryonic would have been much better.


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