Noise 101: CD Reviews for Oct 22 Reflector
Back in the days of vinyl, when rock bands were becoming more and more ambitious, the idea of a double album was exciting and intriguing. With four sides of plastic to fill, musicians were able to dump in everything they were trying at the time, or finally execute some sort of defining statement or vision. The best double albums (The White Album, Blonde on Blonde, Physical Graffiti, Tommy, Daydream Nation, London Calling, Metal Box, Exile on Main Street) were able to do both, and even the more wild and demanding examples (The Wall, Tales of Topographic Oceans, Sandinista!) deserve admiration for their gusto.
Leave it to the Flaming Lips to take us back to those days of yore. When it was announced that Embryonic, the Oklahoma outfit’s 13th studio record, would be a double album, it inspired excited yet slightly puzzled reactions. (This is partly because, in this day and age, the idea of a double album has been all but lost, now that the majority of those four-sided epics can fit easily on one compact disc.) Would this be a two-CD sprawl like the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Stadium Arcadium? Will they have enough songs for such an undertaking? Will this end up being the Lips’ Sandinista! moment, where one great album will be lost within a sea of annoying and piddling experiments?
All of those concerns were valid considering the band in question. Ever since their formation in 1983, the Flaming Lips have remained one of rock’s most compelling, strange, and polarizing groups. From their earliest forays into neo-psychedelia to 1997’s four-CDs-playing-at-the-same-time experiment, Zaireeka, to leader Wayne Coyne’s (later aborted) plan to record 40 automobiles with their sound systems blaring separate musical streams. Throughout it all, however, the Lips have been modern music’s link to the past, conjuring up Syd Barrett-era Pink Floyd and Captain Beefheart-esque absurdity while consistently writing memorable melodies.
Now that they have finally been given their mainstream dues and have dutifully blown minds through their thoroughly entertaining live shows, the Lips have decided it’s about time they got truly weird again. There were reports from the studio that Coyne and company had gotten darker in their new material, that the band was trying too much at once, and that it would result in something new and brilliant. They were right.
Embryonic is the Flaming Lips’ sprawling, cinematic musical vision finally given room to breathe, grow, transform, and stretch out to the stars — just as a double album should be. The band gives hints to the journey the listener will take right from the get-go (the album art is surely the darkest of the Lips’ recording career), as each and every one of the 18 songs tap into the heart of true psychedelia: dark, damaged, mind-altering.
True to double album tradition, Embryonic follows a narrative that could lead to “concept album” claims from fans. Opener “Convinced of the Hex,” with its squeals and screams and insistent bassline, matches Coyne’s lyrics note for paranoid note, as a rambler loses his rational partner and is forced to live alone with his convictions. By the time the haunted ballad “Evil” creeps into the speakers, our hero is lost in the woods and his own mind, wishing he could “go back in time/I would have warned you/Those people are evil/And it’s hard to understand.”
But don’t let the conceptual aspect of the record overshadow what’s truly remarkable about the finished product: doesn’t sound planned or mapped out at all. The Lips haven’t sounded this loose, spontaneous, or raw in years, and here they play like a tried and true rock band hashing something out in the studio (and not just because of the distorted studio chatter throughout, or Coyne’s creepy-yet-charming throat-clearing cough right before he starts singing “If”). There’s an immediacy to these songs that keeps the whole thing from coming off as pretentious – one of the largest hurdles the band has had to jump over several times throughout its career.
What makes Embryonic so awe-inspiring is how such a majestic and epic sonic vision has been made so crystal clear in its finished form. Any other band wouldn’t have made it past the drawing board, but the Flaming Lips aren’t just any other band; they’re our bridge from the past to the future, and their latest is the harrowing soundtrack that will play in everyone’s heads as we take that journey towards the latter. If only the Delorean had had a CD player.
More tracks on the racks:
If you ever wondered what all your dreams would sound like, this album is the closest thing. A fitting companion to the movie, Karen O and the Kids create an emotionally encapsulating collection that, for better or worse, plays like the soundtrack to the inside of your head. We are all prone to equal fits of melancholy and joy, and the record does a nice job jumping between these two extremes. Having a song like “Worried Shoes” followed by the playground chant of the appropriately-titled “Rumpus” is a nice allegory to every person’s childhood. A little long in the tooth at times, but still worth the investment.
It may be the soundtrack to the second season of a comedy television show about two dysfunctional Kiwi musicians trying to make it in the Big Apple, but it is just a little bit more than that. With elegant album art and immaculate production, I Told You I Was Freaky could pass as a serious musical project, and it might be, but deep down it seems like Bret McKenzie and Jemaine Clement are just trying to get laid. But is there any other reason to start a band? Listen to this album in the dark and if you are lucky you just might pee your pants.
Many things can be said about the soundtrack to the latest Twilight entry being so chock-full of notable indie musicians. This cross-section of the indie-sphere focuses on the moody, dark, reflective variety, however, which either shows that this is a perfect companion piece to the emo-chic saga, or simply a lazy mixtape trying to be cool and hip. In short, it’s a little of both. It would be interesting to see how these songs are used in the film, which might draw older crowds to this tween-focused enterprise. But the disc does its job, and it’s pleasant enough that you’ll forget about Robert Pattinson on the album jacket.
Rihanna “Russian Roulette”
Don’t deny that Rihanna has brought a new kind of sexual danger to pop music (take that, Lady Gaga). The first single from November’s Rated R finds her in dark ballad territory courtesy of writer/producer Ne-Yo, who creates some sort of desperado-hip-hop that has to be heard to be believed. Meanwhile, the new poster child for domestic abuse pleads her lover to “pull the trigger” for both their sakes. While the lyrics are a bit slight, this is a welcome return from a force to be reckoned with.
Charlotte Gainsbourg “IRM”
Artists have always tried to describe harrowing experiences through music, but this French actress/singer/chanteuse and her current producer/writing partner Beck have managed to recreate the undoubtedly frightening and lonely ordeal of having your brain examined by a machine. Over throbbing industrial disco, Gainsbourg sounds positively translucent as she imagines what the device might be picking up, before simply succumbing to the inhumanity of it all.
Michael Jackson “This Is It”
This is it: MJ has become the new 2Pac. But behind the ickiness of hearing Jackson singing from beyond the grave for the sole purpose of generating loads and loads of green, we find the King of Pop sounding more relaxed than he had been in decades – the “one, two, three, four” at the start is heartwarming – and his least earnest and most convincing ballad since “Human Nature.” If this is a harbinger for the unreleased music to come, we’re off to a pleasing start.