Flaming Lips: At War With The Mystics

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.

JamBase | Sunnyvale
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[Published on: 6/8/06]

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jkarns starstarstarstar Thu 6/8/2006 01:23PM
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The Flaming Lips are NOT overrated!

They are here simply to save the world.

wyattrwilson starstarstar Thu 6/8/2006 03:32PM
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peolpe fear what they dont understand. This author is a prime example.

claypool4life Thu 6/8/2006 06:13PM
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I would have to say i am very into the past 40 years of rock evolution and early floyd and syd barrett are my favorite of the psychedelic bands and i have to say flamin lips are a large part of the past 40 years of evolution your talking about a band that has done a huge evolution from the early stuff. i have also enjoyed no recreational chemistry in my life and enjoy psychedelic music very much. music is a psychedelic i do not need the chemistry

jacobandbeth star Thu 6/8/2006 06:38PM
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this review sucks. the lips rule and this review overanalyzes them and the author seems to be more interested in witty crappy comments then actually enjoying or listening to the albums. Who cares how much critical acclaim and attention they have recieved, they are fun and talented and make great music. the reviewer should go listen to something more pretentiuos so he can mentally masturbate on his own self importance.

snappy Thu 6/8/2006 07:57PM
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I understand the Lips just fine. In fact, as a public radio DJ I played them from their start. What I dislike, and the review I wrote reflects this, is the deification that's hit this band in recent years. There's a muddy headed mythology surrounding them now that's really off-putting and I'm not the only longtime fan that feels this way. They are brilliant showmen, strange in so many captivating ways, but they are still just a band. I like the new album, and the review reflects that. They are also worthy of criticism. 'Nuff said.

Stevie_t Thu 6/8/2006 11:24PM
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i guess this guy has his point about influences, but yeah, most musicians do have influences. but there is something to be said for amazing music that connects with people the way wayne coyne can. the composition and arrangement on this album show growth, and really highlight the musical genius of steven drozd. i won't even get started on the magic of a flaming lips show.

they're not underrated at all for what they are, i dunno about the UK tho.

alfrescoesquire starstarstar Fri 6/9/2006 01:00AM
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"Call it folk music for kids who've done a lot of recreational chemistry."

You got it right on that one Mr. Cook. As for the rest of it..........not gonna go there.

Long Live the LIPS!!

gwilder Fri 6/9/2006 08:59AM
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I actually thought this article was critical of the Lips, but ultimately in favor of the album. Read something all the way through before dismissing it out of hand. I dig the album and think it kicks alot of a**, especially compared to alot of other stuff out there, but you can like something and also be critical of it.

bfraim starstarstar Fri 6/9/2006 09:28AM
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I respect the author's right to his opinion and his thoughtful explanation for his critique. Nonethless, I disagree with his view that "[m]uch 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." From an objective point of view, the fact that he doesn't even mention one of the boldest and most original tracks on the album, "Free Radicals", indicates that either he does not have or is not using a critical ear. Either way, the review is largely condescending and patronizing in its tone. Dennis, I agree that the Lips are somewhat overrated as a band, but please don't feel obligated to find fault with an album that is highly praised by the masses, or to praise an album that is otherwise trashed.

skoobyj Mon 6/12/2006 10:30AM
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I'm sorry, but this review is so pretentious: "like a genial mongoloid from the 25th century dispensing the future's version of Norman Vincent Peale." Quit with the references and actually say something. Are you reviewing an album or trying to prove how smart you are. Get over yourself. The Lips album is a masterpiece, you don't have to put it down just to show how hip you are.

jz Mon 6/12/2006 11:27AM
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dennis, have you seen "the fearless freaks," the home-movie documentary about the lips? if not you gotta check it out. you talk about the deification of the band here, but i think youll back down on that once you see footage of wayne mowing his own lawn in the same OKC neighborhood hes lived in all his life. if he is mythologized, its for good reason: hes a real guy whos made some incredible art over the course of 20 years, some of which IS as profound as its made out to be. cant we have more rockstars like that? these days, nobody makes music about love and death and life and politics like the lips. and nobody is as unabashedly joyful and, yeah, fearless in what they do. for better or worse (and really for the worse if youre trying to review their album), the flaming lips are a lot more than just the music they make.

oysteria Mon 6/12/2006 07:40PM
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The lips make some very eclectic, unique music that cant be matched, but the only 2 times i saw them live were at festivals. It always seems like they are trying to have to much fun with gimmicks and what not. great for the tweakers but some people are like "just rock Wayne". With the festival crowds, Wayne stops between every song to try to pump up the crowd, like he just wants the Lips show to be the "event' or "craziest " show of the weekend. Studio soundscapes are magical with the lips. sit in your room and eat some acid.

JBrickson Fri 6/16/2006 11:00AM
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I saw the lips at wakarusa last week and the performance was unfucking beleivable. My first lips show, i was lucky enough to land 2nd row center stage seats. Wayne Coyne entertained us thorughout the show and the lips special effects made the show so much more than great music. I will continue to listen to the lips for as long as they keep playing music and hopefully catch many more of their shows.

nathanjrod starstar Fri 6/16/2006 11:36AM
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A disappointing review that really says more about the author than the cd he is reviewing.

kolbard starstar Fri 6/16/2006 01:23PM
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I believe that AWWTM is the Lips' weakest effort so far, and Dennis Cook's reviews are almost always my favorites; that being said, I think he's completely off-base (no pun intended) about it being meatier than Yoshimi or The Soft Bulletin. TSB is one of those rare albums that hits me on an entirely emotional level, but it also has, in my opinion, some of the best rock playing of the 1990s. Again, though, I would agree that AWWTM is too simplistic.

snowfleury starstarstar Fri 6/16/2006 03:20PM
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i saw the Lips last week. Great show. I think if your in the front row, you get alot more out of it, like i did.

Cr4wley starstarstarstar Sat 6/17/2006 09:58AM
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oysteria is 110% correct. The Lips can offer several means of entertainment. But to fully appreciate the depth and colors of their studio albums, you need to take a trip. I also must recommend the 4 Disc Zaireeka experiment, which very well results in experience(s) like no other. Much love for Wayne and the Lips. Keep doing it!

tomaso_11 star Mon 6/19/2006 02:33PM
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This review isn't as much about the album as it is about the author's view of the band. And I must say that not even commenting on the song, "Free Radicals" makes one wonder if the author even listened to AWWTM. I too saw the Lips at Wakarusa and was blown away by the spectacle and the sound. It was the highlight for me of Wakarusa by far. Nothing wrong with some "recreational chemistry" in my book! Rock on Wayne!

snappy Wed 7/12/2006 10:05AM
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The author of this review here. Okay, I just spent 20 minutes on the phone with Wayne Coyne and can safely say I no longer have any real problems with what the Lips do. The man has his head on straight (except when it's gloriously twisted) and through discussing another artist I got a lot of insight into what the Flaming Lips do. He seems just the right amount of uncomfortable with the hero worship many have for them these, too. Very winning that.

And for the record, this isn't a negative review. It's critical. Folks often confuse the two things. I genuinely like the new album (and say so) even if I have problems with aspects. Live, they are a force of nature and I've never said otherwise.