Freaked Out and Small
Loony Flaming Lips, Lovely Harper Simon

Another week, another wedding.

This time it was my friends Sebastian Szyszka and Rhianna Wisniewski who tied the knot after nearly 11 years together. Naturally, the first dance song was “At Last.” They held the ceremony and reception in the Cheney Mansion in Oak Park, and even though I initially objected to setting foot in any place named Cheney, I have to admit that house is beautiful. I got to catch up with friends I hardly ever see anymore, and I got to play a really nice-sounding piano. And also, I got to see two of my favorite people share the happiest day of their lives.

No weddings scheduled for next week yet, but I’ll let you know.

I also saw Where the Wild Things Are, Spike Jonze’s mad extrapolation of Maurice Sendak’s immortal book. Everything you’ve heard is true. This movie captures the spirit of Sendak’s work, which was always more prickly than cuddly. Jonze and writer Dave Eggers resist every temptation to be cute – this movie is raw and angry and untamed, catching and bottling the tidal wave of emotions unique to children. It’s a tough little film about learning to deal with those emotions, and that it tells this very serious tale with creatures that look as though they’ve wandered on screen from some other dimension’s Sesame Street is just amazing. My friend Josh Larsen sums it up well here. Go. See.

But wait, there’s more. I also saw Mutemath in concert at the House of Blues. I’ve seen this New Orleans quartet five times now, and this was without a doubt the best show I’ve seen them put on. Mutemath is something of a traveling musical carnival, band members swapping instruments, playing percussion on microphone stands and doing somersaults over the electric piano, all while playing some pretty complex music.

I am happy to report that the Armistice songs come alive on stage – what sounds restrained and minimal on record just explodes live. And Darren King remains the most entertaining drummer around right now. I won’t tell you the new use he came up with for the Big Drum at the end of the show, but it was a definite highlight. If you have a chance to see Mutemath live, don’t pass it up. They just get better and better.

Okay, it’s time for the silly music column. Onward!

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This week, HBO’s joke band Flight of the Conchords released an album called I Told You I Was Freaky. Yeah, it’s funny, but the real freaky album of 2009 hit stores one week before – Embryonic, the new 2-CD head-scratcher from the Flaming Lips.

Oklahoma’s favorite sons have never been anyone’s idea of a straightforward band. But lately, they’ve been streamlining their excesses and building a body of interesting, grand, silly and pretty excellent work. Starting with The Soft Bulletin in 1999, the Lips dialed down their head-trippier side and began creating heavily orchestrated music for the films in Wayne Coyne’s head. 2002’s Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots may as well have been a movie, and last year’s Christmas on Mars actually was one, with a soundtrack right out of those cheesy old sci-fi flicks the Mystery Science Theater guys love.

And yeah, 2006’s At War with the Mystics was pretty bad, but mainly because it married the Lips’ modern style to an ‘80s Prince funk thing that just didn’t work. I was fully expecting them to go back to the Soft Bulletin formula for its follow-up, and release 12 more hopeful, dense, huge-sounding pop songs. The very fact that I expected this means I don’t know the Flaming Lips at all.

What they’ve actually done is delivered the freakiest album they’ve made since Zaireeka, 12 years ago. On first listen, Embryonic is an absolute shambles, comprised mostly of incomprehensible noise and studio frippery. Staying with it yields rewards – more than can be found in At War with the Mystics, for example – but it is still perhaps the most bizarre and off-putting record of the band’s career. At times, it seems to hang together through force of will. At other times, it doesn’t hang together at all.

Embryonic is billed as a double album, but it runs barely 70 minutes, and in the cheaper “standard” edition, it fits all on one CD. The “deluxe edition,” which strikes me as the definitive, splits the album onto two CDs, Julian Cope style, and I think it works well this way – each “side” has a strong beginning and an even stronger ending, even if only in relation to the more questionable tracks on here. It also comes with a DVD containing a high-resolution version of the album, and since the point here is sound and texture, this is worth spinning at least once.

But I wouldn’t blame you if you only managed to get through Embryonic once. The production here is intentionally irritating – drums are distorted beyond belief, vocals are processed to death and shoved into the background, odd synthesizers bleat and blat all over the place, melodies (such as they are) are hidden beneath a mountain of noise. Some of this record physically hurts my ears. The whole thing is filled with fascinating, yet annoying production choices. Even the most straightforward songs, like “The Impulse,” are like canvases smeared with feces, and the odder ones… well…

All of this would be less of an issue for me if the Lips had bothered to write any compelling songs here, but they didn’t. I understand they were aiming for a collapse of structure, and they succeeded very well, but the result is nearly unlistenable. Opener “Convinced of the Hex” is one of the most linear pieces here, and it merely repeats its three-note melody for three minutes. There are five tracks named after astrological signs, and these are all segments of jam sessions, instrumental nothings that flail about for whole minutes without going anywhere. The exception is “Gemini Syringes,” which repeats a single-note bass line and throws spooky goop on top.

There are definitely some things I’ve grown to like on Embryonic. “The Ego’s Last Stand,” which opens disc two, is a chilling little number. “The Sparrow Looks Up at the Machine” works reasonably well, even though it’s a bit repetitive. “Evil” is the closest to the Soft Bulletin style, and “Silver Trembling Hands” is a real, honest-to-God song, my favorite thing on either disc. I will also admit some love for both closing tracks, each among the album’s longer pieces, and full of slowly-crushing power.

But you have to get through a lot of annoying crap to reach them. Some lowlights: there are two stoner metal songs on here, “See the Leaves” and the endless “Worm Mountain,” and they are proof that just doing drugs doesn’t make you a stoner metal band. Karen O of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs stops in for “I Can Be a Frog,” the stupidest Lips song ever, and her part consists entirely of making animal noises at the end of each line. “I can be a lion,” Coyne sings. “Raaar,” Karen O replies. It’s embarrassing as all hell. But at least it’s kind of hummable – good luck getting through formless stretches like “Aquarius Sabotage” and “Virgo Self-Esteem Broadcast.”

Coyne has said this album was made in the spirit of experimentation, and it certainly sounds like it. More to the point, this sounds like the product of a few months of fucking around in the studio, and if you’re expecting an album of actual, you know, songs and stuff, you’re going to be let down. I’ve softened my initial get-this-away-from-me reaction a bit, but I’m still putting this into my Interesting Failures drawer, along with Kid A and Amnesiac. If you thought those albums were the greatest of the last decade, you will probably drool all over Embryonic. Me, I like a little more substance with my crazy. If they can harness these new powers for good, though, I’ll be first in line.

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At the other end of the spectrum is Harper Simon, whose self-titled debut is only 30 minutes long, but is full of terrific low-key songs.

Harper is Paul Simon’s son, a fact he never seems to play up. And with songs like these, he doesn’t have to. I tried out Simon’s work on a whim, and ended up playing the three tunes on his Myspace page again and again for days. As it turns out, these are tracks two through four on his self-titled debut, and certainly among the strongest numbers here. But the whole album sparkles with life, each song a melancholy wonder all its own.

I’m not sure how much of that is down to Harper Simon himself. True, he wrote or co-wrote all of these songs (save the traditional “All to God”), but he had some first-rate heavy-hitter help here. Of course, his dad pitched in, co-writing three songs and playing guitar on one. But Harper also assembled a crack band of Nashville elites for a few tunes, most notably the wonderful “The Shine.” And the record also features contributions from Marc Ribot, Steve Nieve (of Elvis Costello’s band), Petra Haden, Patrick Warren, Sean Lennon (I bet he and Harper had a lot to talk about), Inara George of The Bird and the Bee, Yuka Honda of Cibo Matto, and Aaron Espinoza of Earlimart.

With that star-studded lineup, it’s hard to imagine this album going wrong, and of course, it never does. The songs co-written with Paul Simon certainly bring out the vocal similarities between father and son, but Harper wisely records those with the Nashville band, bringing out a totally different sound. “Tennessee” is a classic country story-song, and the aforementioned “The Shine” is one of the year’s most beautiful. But even the ones without Paul, like the great “Wishes and Stars,” show Harper’s a Simon. That song is a web of acoustic guitars and chimes, and finds a new way to express loneliness: “There are more wishes than stars…”

“The Audit” brings Elliott Smith to mind, with its sweet melody and piano part. “Shooting Star” is wonderful, with pedal steel from Greg Liesz and a melody that will stay with you. And “Ha Ha,” with layered laughter from Petra Haden, is a highlight and a half – a great little Paul Simon lyric matched to a delightful, sprightly melody. Even something as simple as “Cactus Flower Rag” works marvelously here, like one of Simon and Garfunkel’s more upbeat moments. It often takes the children of musicians years to come to terms with their inherited traits – Julian Lennon struggled with it mightily, for example. Harper Simon seems comfortable taking his inspiration from his dad, even though it might lead some to dismiss him.

But no one should, particularly if they hear this superb little album. Recently, Simon played closer “Berkeley Girl” on Jimmy Kimmel Live, and he gave it a Bob Dylan treatment, with horn sections and a shambling full band. It didn’t particularly work, but that’s because “Berkeley Girl” is best as it is on the album – just vocals and acoustic guitar. It is a perfectly hushed ending to a quietly confident debut, one of the year’s finest surprises. May the son also rise.

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Next week, two orchestral pieces from Sufjan Stevens. Some pretty good stuff coming up after that as well, including Transatlantic, R.E.M., the Swell Season, We Shot the Moon, Tegan and Sara, Joy Electric and Tom Waits. And of course, there’s the ridiculous-sounding new Weezer, called Raditude. Yes, Raditude. I can hardly wait.

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See you in line Tuesday morning.