Tuesday, June 8, 2010

The Soft Bulletin by The Flaming Lips (1999)

A reshuffle of a band’s line-up has often taken bands into new directions. Members who were more in the background step in to fill a creative void (think Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters after the departure of Syd Barrett), new members are brought in and either faultlessly emulate their predecessor or add their own spin. When Ronald Jones, the Flaming Lips’ lead guitarist left in 1996, the remaining three members decided to continue without looking for a replacement. A new experimental phase was initiated for the Oklahoma threesome, one that would yield some of the best music of the 1990s.

Not many bands are lucky enough to have a drummer who also happens to be a guitar and keyboard virtuoso. Lucky for the Lips, Stephen Drozd could step into the breach and help make their most ambitious music yet. For their first few albums, The Flaming Lips had made what can best be described as “Freaky Punk Rock”, an acid-fried version of US punk as it was developing in the early 1980s. In the early 1990s, they rode the alternative wave, having a minor hit with “She Don’t Use Jelly” in 1993. Their last album with Ronald Jones, 1995’s Clouds Taste Metallic showed more ambition in their arrangements, hinting at new directions. Losing their guitarist heralded in a phase of great experimentation. Rather than continue as a functional band, the Lips bunkered down in the studio and worked on producing loops of textures, samples and other creations. Spread across dozens of tapes that were meant to be played simultaneously by a participating, conducted audience, new directions in music were explored. The idea was that different pre-prepared parts would yield a sound greater than the sum of its parts due to being slightly out of sync and coordinated on the fly. What started as the “Parking Lot Experiments” snowballed into the “Boombox Experiments” and eventually became Zaireeka, a four disc set meant to be played simultaneously for eight-channel living room mayhem.

The rich, layered sounds that were developed in these sessions would find their way onto the Flaming Lips’ next, “proper” album. Zaireeka had been greenlighted on the condition that it wouldn’t count toward the records that the band owed their label under their deal. What emerged in 1999 is a timeless album that can hold its own against other 1990s classics like Nevermind and OK Computer. The cover, a two-tone image cropped from a 1966 Life feature on the increasing use of LSD among the American population, already somewhat prepares the listener for the contents.

Fig 1: a spread from the original 1966 article in Life magazine.

Any album that opens with the verse “Two scientists are racing/for the good of all mankind/both of them side by side/so determined/locked in heated battle/for the cure that is the prize/but it’s so dangerous/but they’re determined” is bound to be something special. That euphoric opening track, “Race For the Prize” immediately sets the tone for the rest of the album: lush, ambitious, and with a drum sound that is compressed to the size of a pancake. “A Spoonful Weighs A Ton” takes it further, with oboes and harps clashing with synthesized choirs and electronically treated bass. The second verse uses a tinny Run DMC style drum machine to great effect, guiding Wayne Coyne’s “straining Southern choir boy” vocals beautifully. After the two energetic opening tracks, “The Spark That Bled” is the first of several “proggy” suites. Vibraphones and brass parts that have been said to recall (to the chagrin of the artists themselves) the Beach Boy’s Pet Sounds give the first parts of the song a symphonic “tropical” quality, whereas Drozd’s lead guitar piece towards the end recalls the country music prevalent in the band’s native Oklahoma. Various experiments in sound give way to “Waitin’ For A Superman”, one of the first tracks that shows a maturity in Wayne Coyne’s songwriting. Its earnest tone and frank lyrics foreshadow the band’s later hit “Do You Realize”. A logical climax to the loose narrative of the album is “The Gash”, a Wagnerian march that creates a sonic battlefield and urges the listener to contemplate the nature of his weakness. The resolution of the cycle is the utterly breathtaking “Feeling Yourself Disintegrate”, a tear-inducing song that soars as guitars melt among heavenly choirs.

In order to tour with the new material, the band took full advantage of turn-of-the-century technology. Rather than try to recreate the studio masterpieces with a pieced-together touring band, Stephen Drozd recorded drum tracks for the songs, leaving him free to play guitar and keyboards. The demented orchestras, choirs, effects and slide guitar pieces were also left on the backing tracks, blurring the distinction between the studio and the stage. The Beatles found it impossible to recreate their new sounds live on stage and retired from touring; the Flaming Lips brought the studio to their audience. Tightly playing along to a backing track allowed for accompanying video presentations projected onto a Floyd-esque screen at the back of the band. This also allowed videos of Drozd’s drum parts to be played in the background while he played guitar live on top of them. This is a particularly powerful effect in “A Spoonful Weighs a Ton”. [YouTube, embedding disabled.]

Though the band would struggle to deliver another statement as cohesive and focussed as The Soft Bulletin, its reputation as a daring band capable of incredible sonic feats would never dissipate. Their most recent offering showcases the band’s refusal to rest on its laurels and continue their journey into sound. The Soft Bulletin has stood the test of time, and will set the benchmark for all spacey rock albums for years to come.