The Flaming Lips invite friends to their neverending freakout
By NICK TAVARES
STATIC and FEEDBACK Editor
Fun, in the eyes of the critical, can be seen as a detriment. Serious music is never fun, the hypothetical sourpuss might say. Real music is not fun. It’s heavy and serious and reflects the deepest tensions in society.
Well, that is sometimes the case. But fun can be great. I have never been one to think that mindless pop is any kind of fun, or that whatever the drones on American Idol bleat out is fun. But fun does not have to be divorced from brilliance. Thankfully, the Flaming Lips have been here for years preaching just such a gospel.
It’s been so effective a campaign, too, that the band decided to make their next record in the company of their friends and well-wishers, and the results are The Flaming Lips and Heady Fwends, 13 songs that range from the chaotic to the sublime. Everything here is distinctly in the cannon of weird, and everything sounds at once cohesive and disparate.
Take “Supermoon Made Me Want to Pee,” a song recorded with the help of Prefuse 73. It’s fun and spacey, for sure, but it doesn’t take much digging before the quality of the song is revealed. It’s deep and textured, features synths and blasts colliding on top of chugging bass and drums, with the voices zip-lining in and out of the spaces. It’s a song that could easily land on playlists for years. It’s fantastic.
And it’s the point behind this. The Flaming Lips, a talented bunch no doubt, thought it would be fun to bring in musicians they admire to see what would come about. And in turn, it’s not hard to find a musician who wouldn’t jump at joining in the controlled chaos the Lips have trademarked. Who wouldn’t want to spend a couple of days with Wayne Coyne in the studio singing, shouting and making a racket together?
What makes the project work is that the Flaming Lips do not serve as a backing band for all these folks, as if it were some sort of demented Last Waltz. Instead, the Lips draft the likes of Ke$ha and Nick Cave into their bizarre world, letting them join in and add to the fantastic noise the Lips were likely already producing.
Cave, no stranger to dabbling in the bizarre himself, sounds like he had a blast howling away on his track, “You, Man? Human???” He bellows and grandstands alongside Coyne while synths and guitars blare behind them, and leading in nicely to Lightning Bolt’s “I’m Working at NASA on Acid,” which ranges from plaintive to screeching noise and back in nearly eight minutes.
The project as a whole hangs together pretty well, no small feat considering the range of musicians and material scattered across four sides. The Lips, of course, are able to tie everything together with a vision that is unique to the core.
But what’s most impressive about the whole project is not necessarily how their likeminded peers fit in with the band, such as Lightning Bolt or Neon Indian, but how folks like Bon Iver and Jim James were able to step outside their comfort zones and find a voice within the weirdness. Erykah Badu’s track, “The First Time I Ever Saw Your Face,” is haunting, with her voice both soaring and distorted over the percussive thunderclaps of the band. Meanwhile, some folks, like Yoko Ono, almost sound like they’re holding back, a sly wink to an audience that may have been expecting screeching and beheadings on tape.
Funny enough, the most “pop-ready” song may just be “Is David Bowie Dying?,” a track recorded with Neon Indian and actually released on an EP last summer. That song has more of a traditional song structure, or the closest thing to a traditional song structure listeners will find here.
But this record is not about radio-friendly numbers. It’s about exploring the limits of comfort, the space of the studio and having fun. This album sounds like it must have been tremendous fun to record, a party in the studio while Steven Drozd concocted tones with their famous guests. That it’s just as much fun to listen to is what ultimately makes this album a success.
E-mail Nick Tavares at email@example.com