Delving into a new Flaming Lips album is like plunging your fork into one of those cakes with a zillion layers. First song: "Mmm, chocolate." Second song: "Ooh, custard!" Third song: "Wha? Raspberry? Wow." Third song: "Huh, a layer of hazelnuts. Crunchy." Fifth song: "Aaah, buttercream. " Sixth song: "Cake!" And so on. And when you're done, you immediately want to stuff your face cause it's so damn good.
You (or at least I) gotta hand it to the Flaming Lips. Who woulda thought they would last this long, keep progressing by such leaps and bounds with every album, and eventually become the elder statesmen of American psychedelia? And who would have thought Warner Brothers Records would keep supporting this nonsense? What's so great about the Lips is that they just do it their own damn way, and they're having so much fun doing it. That is probably what sets them apart, what keeps them going, and what keeps everyone interested and coming back for more. They have spawned many imitators and admirers (Mercury Rev Â– ok, to be fair they do contain a former member, Grandaddy, Sparklehorse, Polyphonic Spree) but no other band can come close to reaching the heights of joy and reckless abandon that the Flaming Lips achieve so effortlessly.
With At War with the Mystics, bandleader Wayne Coyne, producer Dave Fridmann and company reach deeper into their bag of sonic treats, with some crazy ridiculous studio trickery that begs and pleads to be listened to on big fat headphones. They've always played around with the sonic landscape, starting with their boom-box and drive-in theater performances where they would instruct the audience to turn a hundred boom-boxes or car stereos on at instructed intervals to create a dissonant, beautiful reverberation of music and sound. Their album Zaireeka took this concept to the extreme Â– a 4-CD set designed to be played on four CD players at once Â– a truly quadraphonic experience that was, although work-intensive and a little hard to pull off in a small apartment, truly mind-blowing and fabulous. My husband, Danny and I were able to orchestrate a Zaireeka session in the Main Gallery at Cal Arts, a gigantic, cavernous space, with a bunch of teenagers manning the boom-boxes. Talk about low-tech, high-con. Take that, John Cage!
All aural experimentia aside, at the core of Mystics, like all Flaming Lips albums, are well-written pop songs. While so many bands attempt the irreverence and psychedelic cheekiness of the Lips, they don't have the heart or the chops to give it substance. Wayne Coyne has become a great songwriter, and the strains of Pink Floyd, the Beatles, Queen and even Prince can be heard wafting throughout the tracks, like multi-colored ribbons from a pop music maypole. They're even getting a little funky slow jam on a couple of songs. Take that, Justin Timberlake!
Not only is the album deliciously deep and deliriously trippy, but the Flaming Lips have finally let something penetrate their happy little bubble and are now writing political lyrics. But don't worry, it's all naively couched in Wayne's sweet, sing-songy voice and covered with synths and strings and weird vocal effects. Not even the Flaming Lips can ignore the ravages and atrocities of the Bush administration, and I'd certainly rather hear it from them than get one more pumped-up petition request from Move On.
On a final note for the ladies, I don't know if you've seen any of the recent rounds of publicity photos for this album, but Wayne Coyne is looking incredibly fine. He is one of those rock n' roll guys that keeps improving with age, like Nick Cave, and looks super tasty in his three-piece suit and salt and pepper hair. Word up girls, he's married. Word out -- they're going to be at the Greek Theatre this summer with Ween. Since their Noise Pop show sold out in four minutes, you better grab those tickets now. And get ready to have your mind blown.