By Dennis Cook
Reports of a band's genius are often grossly exaggerated; case in point - the past few albums from the Flaming Lips. At it for better than 20 years, the Lips cobble together a tasty party punch from dozens of influences. For someone unfamiliar with The Association, pre-Dark Side of the Moon Pink Floyd, Esquivel, The Turtles, Deep Purple, and '60s radio pop, well, the Lips sound startlingly original, a far cry from most of their contemporaries that embraces cheeky optimism. For those more immersed in the last 40 years of rock evolution, it's often a game of name that influence. From the band's prickly, big-hair days on Restless Records in the '80s up through 1997's brilliant Zaireeka, the Flaming Lips seemed determined to serve their own strange brew. With the commercial AND critical breakthrough of The Soft Bulletin (1999), they've served something that goes down easier but leaves a peculiar aftertaste. That's not to say it's not yummy or it won't get you looped like a free-range roller coaster. In terms of sheer fun, there are few better. But that aftertaste remains and never more so than with their latest, At War With The Mystics.
Much of the new material has an "If I Had A Hammer" simplicity. Call it folk music for kids who've done a lot of recreational chemistry. At times, the seeming chipperness of it all gets to be a bit much. I say "seeming" because there's often another layer of meaning swimming around in the lyrics that takes some time to disentangle from the bright side sloganeering. The new songs frequently slip into a Teletubby version of Dianetics, where if you just think positively, you'll fly, succeed, etc. It's sweet in its way but again, a tad simple, like a genial mongoloid from the 25th century dispensing the future's version of Norman Vincent Peale. However, when it works, as on "Mr. Ambulance Driver," this pop philosophizing can be gently thoughtful ("We can't trade places. Our lives are strangely our own.")
Musically, At War is a meatier affair than either Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots or The Soft Bulletin. Cuts like "The W.A.N.D." rediscover their Cheap Trick-ian guitar wizardry, fueling righteously snotty slogans like "We've got the power now, motherfuckers. It's where it belongs!" As anthemic as anything U2 has dished out in recent years, the Lips play unapologetically big. The cosmos is their canvas, and the Jackson Pollock style sonic onslaught is endlessly absorbing if sometimes needlessly busy. Production wise, they've broken into Paisley Park to borrow quite a few of Prince's old moves, which is really no harm, no foul since he's not using them anymore. Vocoders, infinity reverb, analog slinkiness, and a computer-inflected sense of funk all inform these recordings.
Wayne Coyne's voice remains a key element, for good and bad. It's not a great voice – a peculiar mix of Frankie Valli, Dennis Wilson, and Don Knotts – but it succeeds in being totally human, vulnerable, and broken in all the right places, perfect in its imperfection. His striving for the high notes is our striving for those same notes.
And this may be the main point. The Flaming Lips find power in the softer curves of existence. They feel where others put up a wall. They may not be as deep or original as many critics (especially the UK press) have painted, but they may be the most accessible, most emotionally available mainstream band happening today. For all the bellicose implications of its title, At War With The Mystics is a glowing holiday from the mundane that asks only that we press "Play" and really mean it. Aftertaste be damned, this is fine music for what ails you.
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