Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Embryonic by The Flaming Lips (2009)

Releasing a double album in the days of YouTube, the iTunes Music Store, dwindling sales, mass piracy, and a return to the singles-oriented market the likes of which we haven’t seen since the early 1960’s is no mean feat. When one realizes that the contents of both CDs actually fit on a single disc, it becomes apparent that we’re dealing with something special.

The Flaming Lips hail from Oklahoma, with a 25 year history of psychedelic punk music drenched in a Technicolor sheen. One of many “alternative rock” bands in the 1990s, and known then primarily as one-hit wonders with 1993’s She Don’t Use Jelly, their critical breakthrough would come as the band approached middle age with 1999’s grand, sweeping masterpiece The Soft Bulletin. Since 1999, the band has released two albums, 2002’s Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots and 2006’s At War With The Mystics. Both of these albums, and particularly the latter, have shown a trend towards more mellow, middle of the road music. For Embryonic, continuing this line was not an option; it harks back to The Soft Bulletin’s predecessor Zaireeka and the band’s history of cacophonic experimentation. Zaireeka, incidentally, set the Lips’ precedent for unusual album arrangements. It was released as a four disc set, with different elements of the 8 tracks on each disc. Encouraging the listener to play all four simultaneously, the band achieved an 8-channel experience long before surround sound and DVDs were common.

Embryonic shares some elements with Zaireeka, particularly the freeform experimental nature of most of its tracks. Most tracks are driven by endless drum rolls, bass hooks and layered guitar snarls. The occasional harp and xylophone add flourishes to the stomping rhythms and howls of feedback. An instrument that is noticeably prominent on the album is the (effected) keyboard. From Hammond organ-like lines to funky electric piano stabs, the keys come to life in the gentler moments that intersperse the hectic tracks of the album. Some of the sonic landscapes created in these quieter moments are reminiscent of Meddle-era Pink Floyd.

Embryonic is an album of textures, not songs. It would almost be impossible to nominate tracks as “singles”. The only track that transcends the grooves into a proper song (or does it regress from the experimental into a traditional song?) is the anything but conventional “I Can Be a Frog”. A track that best encapsulates what the album is about would have to be “See The Leaves”, a suite comprising all of the album’s divergent moods.

“Silver Trembling Hands”’ exuberance is also infectious. “The Impulse” sounds like a robotic chamber orchestra is trying to sing “Baby I Love Your Way” over a tinny, artificial “Me and Mrs. Jones”. Special mention should go to Dave Fridmann’s production. On the one hand it destroys the dynamics that the compact disc is capable of delivering, firmly drenching the songs in “loudness” and digital clipping not heard since the 1997 remix of Iggy and the Stooges’ Raw Power. On the other hand, by pushing all of the instruments and vocals to the foreground with equal intensity, a new aesthetic is created, unifying all of the songs.

The very nature of the album inevitably leaves the listener with a lingering question: could the album have been drastically trimmed and condensed to create a flawless 10-track vignette? Occasionally, the album does lose itself in its extended jams. The vulnerability and melody that the Flaming Lips excelled at on recent albums can get buried in the bombast of the arrangements. Yes, with proper trimming, Embryonic could have had the potential to be a new Soft Bulletin. But isn’t this two-album statement more intriguing, daring and ultimately rewarding? It invites the listener to take the time to ponder its merits, relisten several times and enjoy the beauty that reveals itself after several weeks. It’s remarkable and commendable that a band with several of its members hurtling towards their fifties would release a risky, uncommercial and almost self-indulgent album in this day and age, a true “punk” statement.