(2002 Warner Bros. Records Inc. 9 48141-2)
In 1999, The Flaming Lips (Wayne Coyne, Steven Drozd, and Michael Ivins) achieved rare critical recognition following the release of their 10th album The Soft Bulletin. Hailed by rock pundits of all stripes and persuasions as both a surprise masterpiece and one of the most finely crafted pop albums of the 1990s, The Flaming Lips rocketed-out from the depths of indie-rock obscurity that had previously defined their 15 year career. Critics praised The Soft Bulletin as the second-coming of Brian Wilson’s masterwork Pet Sounds, but few would have predicted the band’s unique accomplishment. Indeed, for most of their history, The Flaming Lips were simply a punky Oklahoma City psyche-rock band neatly tagged as occasionally imaginative, frequently unlistenable, and undeniably odd. With five albums released between 1986 and 1992, the band garnered only modest attention. Their music was dissonant and undisciplined; destined for that small collection of obtuse DJs who populate late-night college radio programs. And, although the band did receive some MTV notoriety in 1993 for the amusing single “She Don’t Use Jelly”, (remembered by most as simply “That Vaseline Song”) The Flaming Lips were quickly dismissed as little more than a novelty act.
Yet, by 1996, it became clear to some that something very interesting was brewing inside The Flaming Lips camp. It began with a series of so-called “Parking Lot Experiments”. As the story goes, the band recorded a collection of more than 300 unique cassette tapes comprised of instrumentation, found-sounds, and dialogue. The tapes were distributed across a group of individuals parked in automobiles equipped with tapedecks and gathered in a deserted garage. Participants were instructed to start each of their tapes simultaneously. Reportedly, the resulting cacophony formed something of an orchestra which played a united musical composition of sixty-plus channels emanating from more than one hundred sets of speakers. The experiment was later repeated with an assembled group of boomboxes and, in 1997, the band attempted to capture the spirit of the happenings on the now cult release Zaireeka. Issued as a four CD set designed to be spun simultaneously on four disc players, Zaireeka represented the first coherent expression of the artistic talents only hinted at in the band’s earlier recordings. The album received minimal distribution (only 5,000 official copies are thought to have been pressed) but provided The Flaming Lips with nearly immediate notoriety as a band eager to push the limits of conventional pop. These expectations were affirmed, if not exceeded, in 1999 with the release of The Soft Bulletin. Received as both a critical and commercial success, The Soft Bulletin was an unabashedly dramatic collection of interconnected songs whose orchestral highs and lows were equally matched by a lyrical exploration of life’s “big questions”. The Soft Bulletin quickly outsold all of the band’s previous recordings. Fueled by success, The Flaming Lips hit the road for a year-long rock-and-roll spectacle that combined hand-puppets, glitter, fake-blood, and a syncopated stream of background visuals into one of the most entertaining and innovative live performances this reviewer has ever experienced. When the band finally returned to the studio in late 2000, they were faced with unenviable task of repeating their remarkable success. Fortunately, the new album from The Flaming Lips is not only a continuation of the creative path blazed by The Soft Bulletin, but showcases a band improving on the base impulses that so captivated fans and critics alike back in 1999.
The new offering from The Flaming Lips, Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots, is another oddball concept album which chronicles the life and times of a Japanese bureaucrat, Yoshimi, schooled in martial arts and hopped-up on multi-vitamins. As the album’s title suggests, Yoshimi seeks to rid the world of the evil Pink Robots apparently led by Unit 3000-21, an advanced machine which has developed the capacity to love. Sadly, the details of story are not particularly well-developed and the concept seems all but forgotten by the halfway point in the recording. Nonetheless, the conceit offers a delectable foundation for the album and the signature musical magic of The Flaming Lips is, once again, in full view. As always, the strengths of the band reside in a collection of simple melodies inflated to tremendous proportions by the knob-twiddling genius of producer Dave Fridmann (Jane’s Addiction, Weezer, Sparklehorse, Bodega). Sharp drumming and rock-steady basslines add order and depth to the arrangements and help keep the beautiful mess from spiraling off into sonic oblivion. Add to the mix an endless array of space-age chirps and squeaks and you approach the off-kilter genius of The Flaming Lips. Notable on this new recording is the frequent inclusion of acoustic guitar which adds texture to much of the material and offsets any hint of the cold overproduction that frequently impairs albums which rely heavily on studio manipulation. For The Flaming Lips, the net result is a warm, theatrical album; frequently playful although occasionally melancholy and never too far from its essential pop foundations.
Although the recording is clearly designed to be enjoyed as a front-to-back sequence of songs, several deserve special attention. Much of the album’s “story” is chronicled in “Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots pt. 1″; the closest the band comes on this release to a straight-ahead pop song. The track begins with a collection of modulated and spliced guitar chords which are inventively re-assembled to form the song’s base melody. The chorus is decidedly sing-a-long and the whole track suggests Hello Kitty and the rest of the big-eyed heroes of contemporary Japanese animation. As might be expected, this is followed by “Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots pt.2″; an instrumental number which captures the battle sequence alluded to in the album’s title. The encounter is depicted as an amusing carnival of electronic squeaks punctuated by the occasional scream from a fallen robot. Thus, at first glance, the album seems frivolous. Yet, within the cartoon fa�ade and light-hearted imagery resides many of those same “big questions” that have become fertile lyrical territory for lead-Lip Wayne Coyne. The album’s first track, “Fight Test”, offers a bouncy organ line but confronts the listener with an abstract meditation on the vague space between good and evil or, as Coyne sings, “where the sunbeams end and the starlights begin”. The same theme is present in the dusky “In The Morning Of The Magicians” which plaintively asks: “What is love and what is hate?” and, fittingly, alternates its mood between lush strings and explosive crescendos. For this reviewer, however, the favoured track is the emotional first-single “Do You Realize?”. The subject in this case is an inevitable mortality but, as always, Coyne remains the bittersweet optimist. He sings: “Instead of saying all of your good-byes, let them know you realize that time goes fast. Its hard to make the good things last. Realize the sun doesn’t go down. Its just an illusion caused by the world spinning ’round”.
For some, the music of The Flaming Lips may seem overwrought and many have characterized Coyne’s childlike existentialism as empty and trite. But, to paraphrase Elvis Costello, the aim of The Flaming Lips is true. Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots, much like its companion The Soft Bulletin, are certainly not the most accessible pop recordings available. But, for the tenacious listener, there is tremendous reward in the words and music of The Flaming Lips. This is nowhere more apparent than on the band’s new offering and, for this reviewer, Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots amounts to true pop pioneering.