Friday, December 04, 2009

The Flaming Lips - Embryonic

I can't tell if it's becoming easier or more difficult to pinpoint exactly when the Flaming Lips became one of the most detestable bands in all of modern music. Some might point towards 2006's At War With The Mystics, an album almost universally acknowledged as an underwhelming, poorly produced mess of cutesy bullshit. Others might realize that the cutesy bullshit stretches back to Clouds Taste Metallic, a fine record that presents the group at the peak of its powers as a performing/songwriting ensemble but also plants the seeds of Wayne & Co.'s ambitions to merge the twee with the self-important, ambitions that they clearly have no plans to downplay any time soon.

You just cannot fucking deny The Soft Bulletin as the dividing line in this group's catalog, though. On that album, the Lips traded their guitars for megaphones through which they would broadcast their attempts to make a record that could join OK Computer, Deserter's Songs, In The Aeroplane Over The Sea, and Ladies & Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space as yet another ultra-serious piece of melancholy "art rock" that might fulfill music listeners' needs to have their very own Pet Sounds/Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band/Dark Side of The Moon of the '90s. Did they succeed? Probably. Well, most people would say, "Definitely." The album has since been established as their definitive contribution to the pantheon of critically acclaimed pop LPs, the Lips record that tops lists of people's favorites of the '90s and of all time.

And I suppose that's fine. The Soft Bulletin is a nice balance of the pleasant/enjoyable, the pleasant/slightly more enjoyable, and the fucking horrendous. But the fact that they made it at all, coupled with the fact that they continued to make music after it, was the Lips' greatest mistake. Wayne Coyne never put away his megaphone, nor did he change out of that damn suit. In case you've been denying it for the past decade, Wayne as LISTEN TO WHAT I HAVE TO SAY ABOUT MORTALITY preacher/Christ/God figure is here to stay. As is the bubble. And the animal costumes. And the confetti. And the "unlikely" live cover choices of popular songs. And the decision to continue pandering to every one of their fucking worthless fans who follows them around the country watching them trot out the same gimmicky live show at every bomb threat worthy hippy death camp festival, playing the same shitty songs shittily (lullaby rendition of "Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots, Pt. 1," anyone?), completely disregarding the fact that they once approached art as something more than a tedious afterthought to a public reputation centered around cloying faux "psychedelic" imagery that appeals to the sort of people who enjoy overly pleasant muzak with embarrassing lyrics.

"But this new album is different! They're freakier than ever!!!" No, no, no, no. Have some actual standards for once. So what if they made an album that's way too long. So what if it's noisier than usual. So what if everything is tastelessly loud in an effort to make the listener forget that most of these tracks are just a bunch of worthless dicking around and that it's a goddamn miracle when one is able to decipher even a trace of melody or compositional impressiveness from any of the tracks that might be construed as actual "songs." Embryonic is a failure. Don't tell me that the thing is intended to be cold, distorted, and distant like XTRMNTR. Primal Scream still managed to own every one of the corners of the pop/non-pop music spectrum that they explored throughout that recording, whether that includes genres (free jazz, New Order style balladry, Stonesy rock 'n roll, hip hop (yeah, I like "Pills"... sod off), big beat, etc.) or the most basic no-brainer musical elements (melody, groove, production.) They weren't just toying with confrontational sonic elements for the sake of it. All the Lips manage is a couple one chord drum heavy grooves that plod along in a way that is intriguing for being closer to '68-'71 Pink Floyd than the Silver Apples/krautrock fixation of recent Radiohead or Portishead (two groups whose most recent works have also appropriated droney psych elements), but is ultimately ruined by the group's inability to seize any grasp on atmosphere and dynamic range that any of the previously mentioned acts have.

And that's the main problem with this album and the main reason that I can't figure out why the general consensus seems to be that Embryonic somehow isn't a pile of shit. This album does not accomplish what it sets out to do/what a listenable 70 minute double LP should set out to do. It never transfixes the listener to a point where the running time becomes justified because, as was challenged by Zaireeka and depressingly cleared up by this release, the Flaming Lips are not capable of being some kind of ultra-freaky psych/noise/kraut/funk/insanity juggernaut. Remember "Hell's Angels Cracker Factory"? The 23 minute cacophonous mess only available on the CD version of Telepathic Surgery? It was tedious and went nowhere, a compost heap of guitar wankery and effects galore. As evidenced by the string of albums that followed, I think they recognized the value in letting their experimental tendencies shine through their beautifully crafted melodic pop/rock songs rather than fueling the "poor man's Butthole Surfers" tag that gets slapped on much of their '80s work. And now they've regressed, not back to the '80s, but to a fantasy version of that decade where "Hell's Angels Cracker Factory" would have been as hotly anticipated as Christmas On Mars and their fans would have paid 20 dollars to own it on a limited edition pink vinyl flexi disc.

But it's 2009 and no longer charming that the Flaming Lips have little concept of what makes an engaging "psych jam," especially since Embryonic is bound to be misconstrued as a work of mad genius from these clownish cult leaders of poor taste. Sure, the Lips tend to favor minor keys and distortion on this album, but it's not "bad trip psychedelia." "A superficially focused approximation of what that might entail" is certainly more accurate. And as much as I'd love to be able to throw out my biases and enjoy this music for what it is, a song like "I Can Be A Frog" is completely indefensible, especially when you imagine sweaty, smelly females in the front row of a Lips concert emotionally singing along with their eyes closed and heads slowly shaking back and forth (I've witnessed this happen during "Do You Realize??" with my own two eyes. It's more depressing than when I realized that everyone I know someday will die.) If you can somehow listen to this song and not cringe, I mean really cringe (it takes a lot for music to make me do this), then it might be time to meet your maker once and for all. It's not some kind of balance between sorrow and playfulness. It's a subpar minor key ballad whose lyrics are too fucking retarded and high in the mix to ignore, even if you try to.

But that's one song. What about the others? There's a few on here. Five, maybe? That's probably pushing it. As I stated before, the occasional Floydian groove pops up every now and then ("See The Leaves," "Convinced of The Hex"), but they don't do shit. They just kind of exist, starting and ending a few minutes later. The experience of listening to them is entirely empty. Sounds are carelessly piled on top of one another. Even solid rhythmic backbones can't elevate them beyond the "just noise" level. "Silver Trembling Hands" almost gets there, but that's a pretty big "almost."

Everything is too harsh and ugly for the "Instant Karma" inspired Spector wall of sound production to be bearable. "Focus" and "songwriting" get thrown out the window. The almost funky '70s Miles Davis nods aren't given any room to breathe and be effective at all. The noise is amateurish and the pop is half assed. So what does that leave the listener with? Not much more than one of the most forgettable albums in the Flaming Lips' admittedly rich discography, as well as the unfortunate realization that in this age of increasingly desperate attempts at dumping undeserving wads of crap into the pop/rock canon, such a conscious attempt at creating a sprawling double LP in the classic vein of (Wayne has said so himself) The White Album, Physical Graffiti, and Sandinista! might tragically go down in history as one. If you are interested in some recent droning mindfuck records that take you on sprawling musical journeys like you've never experienced by enveloping every facet of your being with glorious sound, check out Oneida's Rated O, Beak>'s Beak>, The Hospitals' Hairdryer Peace... hell, you might as well listen to the new Akron/Family album if you want to hear a band with too many ideas stumbling to not embarrass itself. Or just do what any sensible person has been doing on a daily basis for years now and play Super Ae and Vision Creation Newsun at full volume again and again and again. Just don't mistakenly think that suffering through Embryonic more than once in an attempt to find something even remotely enjoyable is worth the time and effort.

Rating: Pretty much the opposite of an album that's any good at all.

Download Link: Saves The Day - "Through Being Cool"


Stefan said...

Man, I have to say, I disagree with you on every point you make about the album.

Leif Garret(t) said...


Stefan said...

*sighs @ da computah*

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