Album review: The Flaming Lips and Heady Fwiends (Warner Brothers)

Flaming Lips by J. Michelle Martin

As the alt-generation’s band of merry pranksters, The Flaming Lips have been afforded generous leniency regarding creative projects and maverick decisions. Not that earlier moves required much defense.

For instance, the costumed animals that jump around onstage amidst glitter, confetti, and balloons evoke the Oklahoma collective’s joie de vive. Leader Wayne Coyne’s unorthodox visual concoctions—ranging from fake blood dripping down his face to his UFO contraptions—contribute to the ensemble’s Wizard of Oz-like sense of youthful imagination and pacifist, nonconformist rebellion.

The long-running group claims a similar history of mythical experimentalism in the studio, too, with the results often both mind-rattling and emotionally rewarding. The four-disc Zaireeka, designed to be played back simultaneously, or in various combinations wherein one disc abets another, is immersive do-it-yourself psychedelia at its finest—and the only such attempt of its kind from a big-name band. Weirdness, it appears, remains the only consistent and essential impetus behind the Lips’ every move. Yet, for the last few years, some of the madcap antics seem at best forced and, at worst, forced.

Credit (or blame) the commercial success of 2003’s Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots—as well as the subsequent exposure made possible by the Lips’ then-ubiquitous presence on destination-festival lineups. However ironic, mainstream acceptance apparently authorized for a limitless period the collective’s license to do as it pleases. Coyne’s carefree Twitter feeds—and his nearly 100,000 followers—only add to the sense that the band has crossed the fine line between cool and annoying. Now, the group looks as if it’s embracing oddities just for the sake of looking unconventional, its maneuvers frequently silly and disposable compared to the past, when the bizarre methods stimulated a creative field that yielded joyous concerts and a string of exceptional albums.

Preceded by the release of a seven-pound gummy-bear containing a flashdrive with four songs, several limited-edition tour-only EPs, and a ridiculous six-hour-long tune (only to be topped several months later by a 24-hour-long ditty), the collaborative The Flaming Lips and Heady Fwends arrives as the latest parody-inviting misfire from a band that’s become increasingly impossible to consider seriously. No, the Lips have never subscribed to sternness or solemnity, yet their music, in spite of the peculiarities and humor, could always be appreciated as significant art.

Featuring standalone tracks with artists ranging from Yoko Ono to Lightning Bolt and Erykah Badu, this odds-and-sods collection barely passes muster as a curiosity item. Rather, it evokes what might happen if a corporate entity purchased control of an underground rave or independent nightclub from their original owners. The place and setting seem familiar, but the atmosphere and flavor have changed.

Oodles of trippy effects, bizarre noises, and logic-defying electronics are packed into the songs and aim to mystify the senses. But it all sounds and feels calculated, the experience a controlled attempt at fun and chaos, and a boring co-option of the authenticity and vision that mark early Lips works like In a Priest Driven Ambulance—efforts that despite their flaws, ooze character and personality. Somewhere, amidst a desire to keep calling attention to their strangeness and goofiness, the Lips lost the plot and their identity. A final reservation concerning the band’s contemporary worth needs to be withheld until its forthcoming studio album—due in the fall, and its last under contract with Warner Bros.—yet if recent history is any indication, hope that Coyne and company hired a good editor. —Bob Gendron

The Flaming Lips store.

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