Review: The Flaming Lips – The Flaming Lips and Heady Fwends
Published on May 10th, 2012 | Jonny Abrams
Rocksucker has only just recovered from reviewing The Flaming Lips’ six-hour song (we haven’t even attempted the twenty-four-hour one, at least not yet) and Oklahoma’s Earth’s finest go and drop this album of high-profile collaborations for Record Store Day. What’s more, another Flaming Lips album proper has been spoken of as being ready for release later this year. Truly this band spoils us, and leads us with this title to wonder whether they watch The Inbetweeners. Unlikely perhaps, but then so are The Flaming Lips.
The patchiness of their 2011 output may have raised concerns about how well any compilation might sit in their astonishing canon of music – in our opinion, they haven’t released an album proper deserving of any less than nine out of ten quails for over twenty years now – but fear not; the few tracks included that were already available are amongst the finer components of said patchwork, while the rest not only keep up the quality levels but also forge a surprisingly cohesive album out of it all. Heady Fwends doesn’t quite hit the dizzy heights of Embryonic and (no matter what anyone says) At War With the Mystics, but it’s really not that far off.
“2012 (You Must Be Upgraded)” gets things underway with a blooper – “‘Cause I want my ass…” wails Ke$ha, before cutting herself off abruptly and requesting another take – and you could argue that it also makes the mistake of starting the LP with perhaps its most jarring track. Certainly, its shockingly harsh electronic squalls was met by Rocksucker’s flatmate with a somewhat dissatisfied wince, but what better way to weed out unsuitable listeners straight from the off? Such is the all-embracing inclusivity of the Flaming Lips ethos (heck, the very nature of this project testifies to that) that this may be unlikely to have been the intention, but there’s something thrilling about landing the good side of these polarising warning shots, which also serve to reassure Lips aficionados that no prisoners will be taken here.
Anyway, “2012”, which also apparently features Biz Markie in some capacity, is at first a stomping chant that sounds a bit like “I Want Candy” as reinterpreted by hostile aliens. Ke$ha’s wavering yelp actually works a treat over the top of Wayne Coyne’s detached, beamed-down vocal, the kind he introduced on Embryonic track “Sagittarius Silver Announcement” and honed with “Walk With Me” from last year’s Gummy Song Skull EP.
It goes on to throw in a splendidly otherworldly backing vocal reminiscent of Zaireeka opener “Okay I’ll Admit That I Really Don’t Understand” before melting into what sounds like the apocalypse as foretold by Mellotron flutes, another ingenious ‘doom’ breakdown to go with that at the end of “See the Leaves” and that from “Is David Bowie Dying?”, which features here later. Again, Ke$ha’s pop vocal sounds fantastic in such a contrasting setting, even in spite of lyrics (“2012, the morning to the New Year’s light / Just save yourself, oh I’ll meet you on the other side / Is this the ending, they could have called the fall of man? / Is this the ending, or are we gonna start again?”) that read like a 12-year-old’s take on the Mayan prophecy.
This section gains intensity, lets loose a ghostly synth choir then falls back into its original ominous stomp, this time even more abrasive and with an unsympathetic-sounding repetition of “oh my my and a boo hoo hoo!”…and then it’s time for “Ashes in the Air” featuring Bon Iver. Floating in a shimmering atmosphere pitched somewhere in between “My Cosmic Autumn Rebellion” and “Evil”, synths shoot off like ray guns fired into space before more of those detached, rueful, even spectral vocals: “You and me / We’re both so fucked up / But you’re fucked up in the good way / And I’m fucked up in the bad”.
The two-piece harmony at play here is almost impossibly commanding in its peculiarity, and it goes on to engage in a spot of call-and-response a voice (Justin Vernon’s?) that sounds like it’s been slowed down to sound like a husky old soul singer channelled through a robot. Thusly does it riff back over another tremendous line: “You and me (yooo-OO-OOH and me-ee-ee)/ We thought we were so smart (we thought we were so smar-ar-art) / We thought we could outrun them (We thought we could outrun them) / But they had robot dogs”. It sounds amazing, and it’s yet to even escalate into Steven Drozd’s dreamy splendour of a chorus; those proggy touches are still there, and by gum do The Flaming Lips wear them magnificently.
“Helping the Retarded to Find God”, featuring Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros, is a twinkly open plane of beaming light occasionally punched through by lazy, squelchy electronic thwomps that vaguely recall “A Spoonful Weighs a Ton” from The Soft Bulletin. Panned one either side, Sharpe and Coyne sound wonderful singing in unison, and after a bit of a noise flurry the last few minutes take on a whole new section; a tipsy, echo chamber singalong of the refrain “I am trying to know you” that reminds, to once again dip into the Lips’ rich recording history for a suitable comparison, of the “you’re invisible now” section of Zaireeka‘s “Riding to Work in the Year 2025 (Your Invisible Now)”.
We then have dynamic Prefuse 73 collaboration “Supermoon Made Wanna Pee”, our thoughts on which you can read here, before “Children of the Moon” welcomes the input of firm Rocksucker favourites Tame Impala. A simple, gently trotting G-to-Fmaj7 strum (and what a reliably dreamy chord sequence that is), “Children of the Moon” makes good use of twinkly keys, falsetto vocals and a honkingly fuzzy bass riff that could conceivably be the work of either band. Strangely enough, the aforementioned vocals don’t really sound like either band, but the net result is lovely nevertheless, a bit like Super Furry Animals dreaming about Paul McCartney singing “Check My Machine” on the moon. Well, obviously the moon.
Jim James from My Morning Jacket then guests on the barmy, ballistic, bloody brilliant “That Ain’t My Trip”, a colossal, thunderous psychedelic rush that comes across like Pink Floyd and Ween summoning “Convinced of the Hex” during a storm, ending somehow aptly with the loud chime of a bell. And is that opening line really “You always want to shave my balls / That ain’t my trip”? Out-rageous!
On an album not exactly short on raucous experimentalism/experimental raucousness, the superbly titled “You, Man? Human???”, starring Nick Cave, manages to out-out–there the lot. Its dirty bass riff is as monumental as that of “Worm Mountain”, or indeed anything that Cave’s own Grinderman have conjured, while…okay, how to describe this? We usually at least make an attempt, but this is nigh-on impossible to convey in mere writing. How about this: it’s like Radiator-era Super Furry Animals (specifically “Hermann ♥’s Pauline”) tripping balls with Deerhoof, the two bands mutually hallucinating an insane space preacher (Cave) yelling “win!” in a weird voice. “I ain’t been human for years” concludes Cave, and he may never have sounded more alien than he does here. “You, Man? Human???” is a truly astonishing track.
Next up is Lightning Bolt collaboration “I’m Working at NASA on Acid” – click here to read our thoughts on that, as well as their sadly-yet-understandably-excluded “I Wanna Get Hight but I Don’t Want Brain Damage” – and then the strange, popping beat of “Do It!”, over which Yoko Ono sporadically yelps the titular refrain. Now it’s as if Vanishing Point-era Primal Scream have replaced SFA as Deerhoof’s tripping buddies, but this time they hallucinate a spy movie set in the Amazon rainforest.
Aforementioned Neon Indian collaboration “Is David Bowie Dying?” follows next – click here to yadda yadda – and then we have Erykah Badu starring on the vast, coruscating, floating-in-space rendition of “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face”, echo-y drums pounding up a 2001: A Space Odyssey/Christmas on Mars sort of vibe, noises flaring up in the mix as if the whole thing is burning up on re-entering the Earth’s atmosphere. Flaming Lips Nerd Watch: the words “that was there at my command” accompany an aural rapture reminiscent of the euphoric end to the chorus of “Are You a Hypnotist?” from Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots.
“Girl, You’re So Weird” features New Fumes and brings out Coyne’s ‘sinister, detached alien overlord’ voice again before first erupting into intergalactic At War With the Mystics-ness then retreating into paranoid-Pulp electronics, and finally “I Don’t Want You to Die” sees Coyne sining the lyrics of “Imagine” over Chris Martin’s peaceful piano refrain. ELO-esque vocoder arrives unexpectedly but effectively before a Clouds Taste Metallic-like guitar twang follows around halfway through.
Chris Martin’s very Chris Martin-y contribution sounds lovely in this non-overproduced setting, pointing towards what Coldplay could have sounded like if they’d taken more of a lead from Grandaddy‘s The Sophtware Slump. It ends with Martin saying “I love The Flaming Lips”, and it should be pretty clear by now that Rocksucker does too. This constantly surprising, cosmic freak-out of a collection (okay, The Flaming Lips issuing a cosmic freak-out is not in itself surprising, but still…) serves to consolidate our firmly held notion that Messrs Coyne, Drozd, Michael Ivins and Kliph Scurlock are the most innovative, most exciting, most stirring, most batshit crazy and all-round greatest recording operation currently going.
Now, that next album; wouldn’t it be great if it featured spruced-up versions of “Walk With Me” and “Squishy Glass”? Just saying…
Rocksucker says: Four and a Half Quails out of Five!
The Flaming Lips and Heady Fwends will be given a physical UK release on 26th June. For more information, including a list of live dates, please visit flaminglips.com, www.facebook.com/flaminglips or www.slow-nerve-action.com