I have never quite understood the Flaming Lips.
I’ve been a fan as long as I’ve been aware of them. I’ve liked some albums (The Soft Bulletin, Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots) more than others (At War With the Mystics, the new Embryonic). I’ve liked, at least a little bit, everything I’ve heard from them, and I’ve long admired Wayne Coyne for sticking to his individual, nutball vision for his band. There is no other act like them.
But I’ve never really felt like I was quite on the train. Other people would talk about Lips music as a transformative experience, and I just wouldn’t get there. I had no idea how this strange group of freakish lads from Oklahoma had affected so many people so deeply. And now I realize that at least part of my bewilderment came from never having seen them live.
Friday night was my first Flaming Lips show. How can I describe the experience? I’ll start by saying it had very little to do with the actual music being played on stage. The band was in fine form, their soaring anthems clashing somewhat against the darker psychedelic tones of the new material, but the tight, swirling musicianship holding it all together. Absent everything but the music, it would have still been a good show.
But in a way, the music was just the backdrop. I’ve been reliably informed that the Lips do this rainbow-colored carnival act at every show, and I’d seen video footage of it, but nothing prepared me for the thrill of being part of it. The show kicked off with “Race for the Prize,” and Coyne began the evening inside a giant inflatable clear plastic ball. He edged it off the stage and into the waiting arms of the audience, and then tried to stay upright while being passed around, hand to hand. All the while, two massive cannons on either side of the stage fired confetti over everyone, and the band loosed roughly 40 enormous balloons into the crowd, urging us to keep them aloft.
There were people in costume – the giant catfish, whom Coyne referred to as “Mr. Giant Catfish,” was a highlight. There were streamers, and tiny sparkling fireworks. Before “Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots Pt. 1,” stagehands carried a couch on stage, and Coyne invited several audience members to come on up, sit and sing with him. There was a massive LED screen showing flurries of images, most appearing and disappearing so quickly you couldn’t register them. It was sensory overload.
And in the end, there was a tremendous, joyous sense of community and love. I can’t explain it any better than that. There was a palpable sense of childlike, innocent wonder to the whole thing, like Coyne had somehow found a way to remain eternally ageless, and it involved confetti cannons and people dressed as caterpillars. The show ended with “Do You Realize,” a song that seems to tap into a deep well of inborn spiritual optimism – some audience members were nearly crying as they sang along. And the final encore was “White Christmas,” of all things, complete with sparkly fake snow, and it worked. We all left walking 10 feet off the ground.
Needless to say, seeing the Flaming Lips live has colored how I listen to them now, and I’m hearing these songs afresh. I still don’t think I fully understand this band, but I’m one step closer, and my heart is still singing.
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Stick a fork in 2009, it’s all done.
The final few new releases have all trickled out, and I don’t expect anything major until mid-January. But those final few records have sent the year out with a bang. It’s always a pleasant surprise when decent music hits in December, and 2009 has certainly been a year of surprises.
Start with Blakroc, a project I honestly didn’t expect to like very much. I figured I’d just buy it because it’s the Black Keys – I have long been a fan of this Ohio blues-rock duo, and have followed them through their fascinating evolution. But Blakroc is the Keys’ hip-hop project, a record made with a veritable who’s-who of a music I generally don’t like very much. I can count the number of rap records I bought this year on one hand. (Kid Cudi, Eminem, Q-Tip and this.)
I tell you this so that you can put it in context when I say I really like the Blakroc album. Perhaps the most fascinating part of it is that Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney didn’t just write a Black Keys album and get some rappers to verbalize over it. They wrote a hip-hop album, which they then performed on real instruments. It’s like the Roots, in a way, with a few more wailing guitar parts. The grooves are deep and bluesy, but the sound is pure hip-hop, in a good way.
There’s an all-star cast on this thing, and the variety does it immeasurable good. Mos Def is dynamite on “On the Vista,” the RZA makes several appearances, and Q-Tip takes a verse on “Hope You’re Happy.” The Keys even uphold what is now apparently a rap tradition, including a verse from a dead guy: Ol’ Dirty Bastard duets with Ludacris from beyond the grave on opening sex romp “Coochie.” But the real star of this thing is Nicole Wray, whose soulful tones show up on three tracks. She takes golden gem “Why Can’t I Forget Him” solo, and it’s one of the record’s best tracks.
Behind all of that, Auerbach and Carney lay down one slinky groove after another. This sounds like it was a blast to record, and it’s a lot of fun to listen to. Credit to the Black Keys for doing the near-impossible: making a rap record I enjoy from start to finish.
The other new release is an EP from Animal Collective, called Fall Be Kind. It’s not quite the follow-up to this year’s extraordinary Merriweather Post Pavilion, since it spans only five songs and runs a scant 27 minutes. But it will do for now. Sometime in the last two years, Animal Collective stopped trying to make ugly noise and started aiming for ethereal, whacked-out gracefulness. And they’ve hit the bullseye again on this EP.
I won’t be able to adequately describe the odd going-over-the-cliff feeling of the first track, “Graze,” particularly the second half. It starts off as an ambient wash of sound and harmony, slowly building up, and then the beat starts, and you’re thinking the pulsing dancehall section of the song is about to start. And then, the pan flute sample starts. Yes, it’s Zamfir, master of the pan flute, and his appearance turns the song into a hoedown. It’s crazy, and it thoroughly breaks the mood, but it works wonderfully.
The best track is next, however. Grateful Dead fans will recognize the Phil Lesh sample from “Unbroken Chain” that provides the backbone of “What Would I Want? Sky,” a six-minute excursion through a strange and wondrous galaxy. The EP never leaps that high again, but the rest of it is of a piece with Merriweather, if not a bit more sedate, and the seven-minute “I Think I Can” picks up the pace somewhat to bring it home.
For years, the music of Animal Collective eluded me, and part of the problem was Avey Tare and Panda Bear’s tendency to slather everything with grating, formless noise. I couldn’t hear the melody, the otherworldly beauty submerged beneath the electro-slop. They’re still just as weird on Merriweather and Fall Be Kind, but they’ve allowed their music to breathe, to simply be, and it’s been a nearly miraculous change. This EP is less of a holding pattern and more of a further exploration of a sound that suits this band incredibly well.
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Next week, I will unveil the 2009 top 10 list.
The 10 records I selected shouldn’t be any big surprise to those of you who have been following along. But I’ll tell you one thing that surprised me: the deadly serious nature of most of the list. Of the 129 songs represented, only a handful could be called genuinely fun. Three of the top five albums are sonic novels, concept albums that deal with love and death and the state of the world, with no room for lighter considerations. Most of the others follow suit, tackling weighty topics with weightier music.
It wasn’t intentional, of course. These are just the 10 albums that moved me most. But my stack of honorable mentions this year is a lot more fun than the actual top 10 list, and if you turn to music solely for entertainment and escape, well, this is where your favorites will be found. I was taken aback, too, and really considered moving one of my Number 11s up, but in the end, the 10 albums I picked are, I feel, the best ones I heard this year. And this from the guy who put Phantom Planet and the Click Five in previous lists.
So here are the honorable mentions for 2009. Before we get to those, a special note for the most worthy ineligible record of the year: Marillion’s Less is More. It was disqualified for being a collection of older material, but this album can stand proud alongside some of this long-running band’s best work. It’s easy to make a lousy, half-assed acoustic album, but Marillion decided instead to reinvent these songs, taking on some of their trickiest material and tackling it from new angles. It’s a mesmerizing set, and I wish I could put it among the 10 best of the year, where it belongs. Go to marillion.com and check it out.
Okay, the honorable mentions. First up is the aforementioned Animal Collective, whose Merriweather Post Pavilion staked its claim early – it was released on January 6, and instantly picked up Best of the Year accolades. Merriweather is just wonderful, a more streamlined (but no less odd) collection of off-kilter pop songs practically bursting with melody. Between this and Fall Be Kind, this band is on a roll, and I hope they can keep it up.
Duncan Sheik also released an early favorite on January 27 with Whisper House. The soundtrack to his second musical, these songs tell the story of a young boy and a haunted lighthouse, and they’re perfect little Sheik gems. He’s a highly underrated songwriter, and this is further proof. That same day, Greg Kurstin and Inara George released Ray Guns are Not Just the Future, their second album as The Bird and the Bee. This thing is simply gorgeous – imagine Portishead as a lounge act, and you have the idea – and it contains “Diamond Dave,” a lovely and hilarious tribute to David Lee Roth that stands as one of the year’s best tunes.
Muse took their Queen-inspired heavy prog-rock one giant leap further with The Resistance, a typically schizophrenic and musically mindblowing effort. The eight more standard songs that open the disc are great, but it’s the three-part, fully orchestrated “Exogenesis Symphony” that makes this an extraordinary album. Speaking of musically mindblowing, there’s The Great Misdirect, the fifth and finest album from Between the Buried and Me. This thing gallops from lightning-fast shredding to jazz interludes to pretty acoustic sections, never sitting still for a second. It eclipses Dream Theater’s superb Black Clouds and Silver Linings as the most frighteningly proficient piece of music this year.
On the exact other end of the spectrum, there is Owl City. Adam Young’s breakthrough album, Ocean Eyes, was unfairly compared to the Postal Service all year, critics apparently missing the childlike joy that emanates from every groove of this record. It’s the silliest great album of the year. Richard Swift made a more serious, but no less wonderful effort with The Atlantic Ocean, his finest work. This one combines Tin Pan Alley songwriting with bizarre synths, and it works beautifully.
I’ve never been the world’s biggest Jack White fan, but with the Dead Weather, he assembled what I think is his best band. Featuring members of the Kills, Queens of the Stone Age and the Greenhorns, the Dead Weather plays slinky and dirty, and their debut album, Horehound, is a thick and grimy slab of super-fun blues rock. I’ve also never been a huge fan of British Sea Power, but with their Man of Aran project, they surprised me. Man of Aran is a 1934 film depicting life on one of the rocky islands off the coast of Ireland, and the band created a new score for the movie that sharpens and deepens it. The music is pretty great on its own as well.
And now for the silly pop portion of our program. I remember first reading the lineup of Tinted Windows, the supergroup featuring Taylor Hanson, Adam Schlesinger of Fountains of Wayne, James Iha of the Smashing Pumpkins, and Bun E. Carlos of Cheap Trick. I could scarcely believe this band was real, but their self-titled debut is wall-to-wall power pop goodness. And the Yeah You’s nearly made me rethink my top 10 list – I discovered their debut, Looking Through You, just last month. This insanely catchy record is sometimes too cheesy for its own good, but those harmonies, stacked impossibly high on every track, carry the day.
Which brings us to my Number 11 this year, Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix. I’m appalled that I never gave this record a full review on this site, so I hope I can make up for that now. French band Phoenix’ fourth album was their breakthrough, led by a pair of singles so tight and so dazzling they all but demanded the attention they got. I first heard “Lisztomania” when I stumbled on the unofficial ‘80s movie video, and fell in love. But “1901” may be even better, its “falling, falling, falling” refrain sounding indelible to these ears.
Phoenix plays dance-pop, yes, but it’s awesome dance-pop, and even though Wolfgang never rises to the dizzying heights of its opening one-two punch again, it’s all good stuff. I’ve even grown to like “Love Like a Sunset,” the seven-minute near-instrumental that divides the album, although I still think they should have sequenced it at the end. The more I listen to Wolfgang, the more I like it.
And there’s another reason Phoenix is on my mind this week – I saw them live, kind of, on Friday, just before the Flaming Lips took the stage. Phoenix was scheduled as the second headliner, but their drummer had a family emergency and had to fly back to France. Rather than cancel, though, the other members of Phoenix performed a short acoustic set, graciously thanking and apologizing to their audience. And you know what? It was a treat to hear these songs in this form. “1901” especially worked well on acoustic guitars, and the band’s graceful gesture, playing what they could instead of packing it in, made me respect them even more. I hope we hear more from them in the coming years, because if the fun-fun-fun Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix is anything to go by, their future is so bright I gotta wear shades.
See you in line Tuesday morning.