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The Flaming Lips, "Embryonic" (Warner Bros.) [3.5 OUT OF 4 STARS]

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The 12th studio album from Oklahoma's fabulous Flaming Lips represents the sort of radical surprise and unexpected departure that was commonplace from these long-running psychedelic rockers through the first two acts of their career, from their origins as a sort of "Replacements on acid" during the indie-rock '80s through their hard-hitting mainstream breakthrough in the alternative-rock heyday of the'90s. But since their reinvention as a digital orchestral-pop band with "The Soft Bulletin" in 1999, they've become both less prolific and more predictable, with each new release boasting flashes of brilliance but ultimately taking a backseat to their increasingly shtick-filled low-budget multi-media stage shows.

Simply put, longtime fans were growing increasingly impatient waiting for the Lips to quit being cute, retire the armies of plushies, the space bubble and the group sing-alongs on "Happy Birthday," and finally hit us with some truly twisted, thoroughly mind-blowing rock 'n' roll again a la the early epic "One Million Billionth of a Millisecond on a Sunday Morning."

"Embryonic" is not entirely successful in this regard--it's not nearly in the same league as "In a Priest Driven Ambulance" (1990) or "Transmissions from the Satellite Heart" (1993)--but it is freakier, more expansive, more willfully noncommercial and more surprising than anything Wayne Coyne and company have given us in 14 years.

Favoring space-jazz rhythms that split the difference between electric Miles Davis and Krautrockers Can, with wild bursts of distorted guitar that evoke gonzo Frank Zappa crossed with punked-out mid-period Pink Floyd, the 18 tracks comprise what would have been a great headphone-friendly double album back in the day. Songs such as "I Can Be A Frog" (featuring delightful background animal yelps from Karen O of the Yeah Yeah Yeah's), "Scorpio Sword" and "Sagittarius Silver Announcement" are about creating a surreal and otherworldly mood rather than playing to the crowd that loves to sing along to "Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, Pt. 1." The mistake the Lips made with their last album, "At War with the Mystics" (2006) was trying to split the difference; here, they're unapologetically weird once more.

How will the festival crowd that has come to think of this group as the ultimate party band react to this material? And will the group boldly push further into this stratosphere in concert, or will it just throw a few hints of these sounds into the increasingly hoary stage show? (That's what it did at the Pitchfork Music Festival last summer, incorporating the catchiest of the new tracks--"Convinced of the Hex" and "Silver Trembling Hands"--amid the expected greatest hits.) The answers to those questions have to wait until the group's next U.S. tour in the Spring. Meanwhile, it's given us new cause to dust off the bong and the blacklight, and that's cause to celebrate.

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I haven't yet decided just how good this album is yet. Don't get me wrong; it's pretty damned masterful. But I'm just not sure if I love it or just really, really like it.

I was thinking about what in their catalog this sounds like, and to be honest, I don't think it has all that much in common with "Ambulance" or "Transmissions." I think it harkens back quite a bit more. To me, this is "Telepathic Surgery" 2.0, as if this is the record they meant to make back then. But it's WEIRDER than "Surgery," so I'm just not sure. It's noisy as hell, though, which is always good.

I guess what I'm trying to decide is if I underestimated how good "Haven't Got a Clue" off the last album is, or if I overestimated how good "Mystics" as a whole was. There is precedent for the weird-ass sounds on this one -- it basically develops the atonal weirdness of "Clue." I didn't expect that; I expected a more floaty, "Dark Side"-era Pink Floyd-ish jam, following in-line with "Cosmic Autumn Rebellion" and "Pompeii am Gotterdammerung." This is a lot more psychedelic-pastiche, sort of like you're constantly listening to a hybrid of "Metal Machine Music," "Tago Mago," and the weird circus music backdrop from "Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!"

So yeah, I'll have to get back to you at the end of the year to let you know how I feel about it. I need to spend more time with it, I think, to figure out just how good it really is.

This new Lips albums is basically 66-67 era Pink Floyd(See Nick's Boogie and Interstellar Overdrive). This is a very, very good thing. It's a masterpiece for sure.

Now that I've spent some time with this album, I'll say that not only is it the worst of the 73 new albums I've bought in 2009 but it's the worst album the band has ever done (I've been a fan since 1990) and I predict that in 10 years people who love it now will dig it out and say, "God, this hasn't held up at all, has it?"

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This page contains a single entry by Jim DeRogatis published on October 8, 2009 1:37 PM.

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