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On Jan. 13, the Flaming Lips released Oczy Mlody, the group’s 16th official album. This doesn’t include EPs, collaborations and compilations, which are aplenty in the Lips world. Between all these official albums and crazy collaborations, talk of any new Flaming Lips release always poses one question: What phase will they be in with this record? It’s hard to think of a band that has redefined itself as much over its four-decade long career as the Flaming Lips. Oczy Mlody it turns out, is surprising in how closely it sticks to the recent eerie Pink Floyd-inspired sci-fi soundtrack playbook, though more heart-wrenchingly emotional.
The point is that the Flaming Lips are unpredictable. “Weird” is a word typically dropped in any sentence mentioning them, but how that’s expressed is what’s interesting: quirky alt-rock, sinister psych-punk, haunting synth ballads, inspirational orchestral anthems. Not everything they release is good. In recent years, they’ve recorded and released every idea to pop in their heads, with mixed results. They can be forgiven for occasionally going overboard on the pretentious scale. It’s a necessary evil with any band like the Lips whose creative juices are firing on all four cylinders. We look back at Flaming Lips entire discography, and pick out the best of the best, sorting through the “proper” studio albums (Yes, they still do those), weird collaborations, soundtracks, EPs, or whatever.
In the 2005 Flaming Lips documentary,* Fearless Freaks*, Butthole Surfers’ Gibby Haynes brazenly states that the Lips “Stole our songs, they imitated us, and Wayne wishes he was me.” He’s referring to the ‘80s, when the group were DIY punk rock road warriors, or better stated, a time few Lips fans care about. They weren’t terrible, but A.) they would go on to make much better music in the ‘90s and beyond and B.) there were other bands around doing much better work, like the Butthole Surfers. That said, their fourth LP, the last of their pre-Warner Brothers indie albums,* In a Priest Driven Ambulance*, is strong.
It maintains the dingy, loud guitar-driven sound, psychotic feedback and bleak off-kilter lyrics of the early years, but it does it with a lot more focus, and with a hint of the sublime, otherworldly quality that would come to define them. The Flaming Lips’ thirst for overdoing it was there right from day one. The previous album, Telepathic Surgery, is most known for including a thirty-minute noise track (added when it was reissued on CD.) In A Priest Driven Ambulance has no such gimmicks. It’s a religiously-obsessed concept album that is dark at its core, and diverse musically in a way the group have never yet experimented, ranging from raw, stripped-down acoustic confessionals to face-melting acid-trip punk smashers. But most importantly, it’s reigned in, which the group desperately needed to do at that point.
In an unexpected twist of events, Flaming Lips became—for a brief blip— offbeat college radio alt-rockers thanks to the modest success of the jangly “She Don’t Use Jelly.” Beavis and Butthead ruthlessly mocked the video in all its handheld camera usage, swirling colors, and lo-fi circle-wipes, which may have bolstered sale a bit. Overall the record was much more lighthearted than anything the group previously released, and catchy. Rolling Stone’s Greg Kot gave the record 4 of 5 stars, saying “Unlike previous Lips releases…[it] doesn’t make the listener work as hard to enjoy the journey.” It was a major turning point for the band, who stepped away from the unabashed bleakness of their early years, for a while anyway.
Ultimately, “She Don’t Use Jelly” and the LP as a whole didn’t hit very hard in any noticeable way. It failed to reach the audience that would eventually latch on to them, and it really had no effect on the punk crowd—however modest—they had prior to finding themselves on MTV. “Turn It On” was also released as a single, with even less success, though it was a better tune than “She Don’t Use Jelly.”
Clouds Taste Metallic turned 20 years old in 2015, and was suddenly heaped with a ton of praise. It was an overlooked album at its time, nestled between the modest commercial success of “She Don’t Use Jelly” and the orchestral opus of Soft Bulletin. Clouds Taste Metallic is the last strictly guitar-driven record the Lips recorded, and the best. It’s also a first effort of Wayne Coyne diving into some serious emotional-based songwriting. The group were shedding their weirdo sides (somewhat), and approaching their tender side, which would reach full capacity on the Soft Bulletin. The result of this first step created an unusual rock album that didn’t quite fit into any of the musical landscapes in 1995.
The record also exposed Coyne’s love for the Beach Boys. If he was a fan prior to the album, it was hard to decipher. His love for the Beach Boys is all over Clouds Taste Metallic. It’s a dense pop masterpiece, looser and grittier than later Lips, but with the precision and experimentation of the post-guitar-driven years. The recording is equally odd, with a distorted soundscape running across the entire album, a nice “headphones” album. The album failed to chart in any way. Ronald Jones’ departure following the release didn’t help matters.
After failing to make much of a splash with Clouds Taste Metallic, it might have seemed odd that the Flaming Lips released an album that required four separate stereos, and four people to properly sync, just in order to listen to it. The album was inspired by a memory from Coyne’s childhood of being at parking lots and hearing the unintentionally creative results of different people’s clashing stereos. He spread out Zaireeka onto four separate discs that needed to be synced together to get the full picture. The Parking Lot Experiments, which are documented on* Fearless Freaks*, where the band plays the album in different cars to demonstrate the proper way to listen to the record, is fascinating to watch. For an artist who would later be known as “that guy that follows every ridiculous artistic whim,” this was his first truly outrageous experiment. Pitchfork were so upset with it, they gave it a 0 out of 10.
Musically, the record isn’t as weird as the experimental concept would imply. It’s like a lo-fi Soft Bulletin, with the occasional oddball instrumental song, thought the inherent echoes and delays that come from slight syncing errors does create a whirlwind effect. This isn’t an album to listen to often, but it’s a good excuse to have friends bring their record players over. Some people have complained that the music is good, but the format is limiting. Perhaps. I doubt the band would have created these specific songs were they not making it for their strange experiment.
A lot of people consider the Soft Bulletin to be the Flaming Lips’ Sgt. Pepper. I agree with those people. The album is the band’s greatest achievement. It isn’t just the gorgeous orchestral arrangements that set this album apart, it’s pure emotion. Early Flaming Lips (and later Flaming Lips) can get a bit too wacky for its own good. That’s gone from the Soft Bulletin. Songs like “The Spiderbite Song,” “Suddenly Everything Has Changed,” “Feeling Yourself Disintegrate,” “Waiting For Superman,” will get under your skin, and bring you to tears. This is a meditation on life, death and the sadness of life. These are songs that can be sung with just a piano and vocals and still be incredible.
For all its flourishes, The Soft Bulletin is Coyne at his most stripped down. The sci-fi imagery is restrained. The weirdo feedback is tempered down. The album is sad, gorgeous and one that you can totally lose yourself in time and time again. Instrumentally, the album is a mix of traditional rock instruments, synths and twinkling symphonic sounds, a mesh of dreamy boyish yearnings and pixie dust. It’s the best record to start with for anyone new to the Lips. It’s perfect.
Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots isn’t much different than The Soft Bulletin from a sonic point of view. Both are layered, synthy, chamber-rock albums. However, this time, Coyne wrote a concept album about killer robots and karate and some other b-movie crap. But he pulled it off. It’s almost as emotional as Soft Bulletin, but this time is an uplifting, feel-good sort of way. Writer Michael H. Little, a fan of early Lips acid gobbling freak days, saw Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots as the ultimate betrayal of their early years, calling them “feel-good hucksters.” He may have a point, but the results are sublime.
Single “Do You Realize” stands as the group’s most known song of their career. It’s pretty, albeit vague, and uplifting in its response to the dark chasm of morality Coyne had been staring at on his last record. But it isn’t the strongest song. That honor belongs to the title track. First listen of “Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots,” and you’ll nominate it as the most gimmicky song on a ridiculously-themed album, but for some reason it is none of those things. You get swept away in your desire for Yoshimi to destroy the evil robots—and you relate to her! Overall, the album could use a little trimming, but any flaws are easy to overlook, given the brilliant songwriting.
The seven-year gap between Yoshimi and Embryonic weren’t the best for the group—Ok, At War With The Mystics was pretty good, but otherwise the group’s experiments fell flat. And right after the release of Embryonic, the group released a lackluster remake of the Dark Side Of The Moon. But Embryonic was something special. A paranoid, acid-soaked double album. The tone of the music has changed substantially since the days of Soft Bulletin and Yoshimi. It was a return in part to the guitar-driven, darker psych stuff, but done in a much more eclectic, and unsettling way.
Where the Lips were once writing melancholy songs, enhanced by gorgeous layers of instruments, Embryonic seems to revel in its unusual soundscapes. Songwriting isn’t as important here as in previous Lips records. Additional instruments add creepy feelings to already hypnotic songs. And yet, there is something entirely raw about Embryonic—it sounds like it was recorded as a band in a single room, something the Lips haven’t sounded like in almost fifteen years. The record, clocking in at an hour and 11 minutes, is a bit overwhelming, but there’s enough good songs to make it worth the investment. The group seems like the are a creative peak hear: unabashedly exploring adventurous musical territories while simultaneously bringing together disparate influences of the past into intuitive ways.
At some point in the past decade, the Flaming Lips became the band that would collaborate with every unlikely artist ever. The results have been mixed, but you have to admire the band for their commitment to redefining the boundary of rock bands (If you can call the Flaming Lips a rock band anymore.) The fact the Miley Cyrus is a go-to collaborator with the Lips has lost all shock value at this point. It’s actually makes an odd kind of sense. The best collaboration album they’ve done (or Fwends album as they call it) is the Flaming Lips and the Heady Fwends, a more or less straight forward collection of collaboration tracks.
Part of the brilliance of the project is the wide arrange of artists that participated: Erykah Badu, Bon Iver, Yoko Ono, Nick Cave, Biz Markie. The songs manage to sound not exactly like Flaming Lips songs, and not exactly like anything the collaborating artists would write. The songs all have an off-the cusp feel to them, like the artists and the Lips quickly assembled something weird and then hit record five minutes later. Somehow, it results in a cohesive record. You won’t be listening to this album often, but it certainly will graze your record player when it’s time to make mixtapes.
“You are Alone” could be in the running for the Flaming Lips most unsettling song ever recorded. The rest of album would also be in the running. It sounds like the embodiment of fear. In a way, The Terror is the spiritual companion to* Embryonic*, but it’s much more chilling. Coyne seems to really be grappling with some personal demons and fears on this. The album is the band’s most subtly experimental record they’ve ever done. Subtly isn’t an adjective normally associated with the band, but it suits them well.
The Terror came out at a time when the Flaming Lips over-the-tops spectacle of a stage show was getting more publicity than the music. Then they released this sharp turn away from pop music, and it’s had an intoxicating effect on the band’s overall aesthetic. There weren’t just circus performers. Above all, the Flaming Lips provoke. Now you can see it for what it is. For all the strange instrumentation on the album, the songs end up sounding like Coyne singing about his darkest, quietest fears all alone in a room with no windows. It’s not a pleasant listen, but it’s a masterpiece.
By all accounts, Flaming Lips should be scoring every single sci-fi film that gets released for the next three decades. Or maybe not. They might be too on-the-nose. The Peace Sword EP is one of those rare occasions where a sci-fi film producer did hire the band to score a film, in this case Ender’s Game. As can be expected, only one of the songs were used. The band released all the songs regardless, and they are some great, breezy, moody tracks, a refreshing change from the nightmare that is The Terror, released only a half a year earlier.
The music sounds like lost material from the Soft Bulletin years, though not quite as emotionally-charged. For all the EPs the Flaming Lips have released, none have been as cohesive as Peace Sword. Despite the strange origin story of the EP, it’s the only one they released that sounds like it was supposed to be self-contained, and not just throw away tracks from the proper studio release. It’s a truly gorgeous, feel-good album, which is strange considering what a mass of anxiety The Terror is. Only the Flaming Lips could have released these two polar opposite albums in the same year.
Aaron is a hard-working freelance writer with a focus on music, art, food, culture and travel. In addition to Vinyl Me Please, he's a regular contributor to Sacramento News & Review, Good Times Santa Cruz, VIA Magazine, Nosiey and Playboy. When he's not working, he's either backpacking, arguing about music, or working on his book about ska. One thing's for sure—he knows more about ska than you.