Monday, June 13, 2011

Thoughts of an Aspiring Music Snob: Week 110 - The Flaming Lips

Chris is trying to compensate for his lack of musical knowledge by immersing himself in one new artist each week. At the end of the week, he will write up a brief summary of his opinions. You can read about the origin and parameters of this project here.
I had never heard of Zaireeka before I started doing some reading about the Flaming Lips in preparation for this week. But once I knew of its existence, I knew that this week wouldn't be complete without listening to the album at least once, the way it was meant to be heard.
For the uninitiated, Zaireeka is a quadruple album that only managed to sneak into existence because record company politics at Warner Brothers were tumultuous enough in 1997 that the Lips could sneak this under the radar in the guise of preparing for their real next album (which would eventually become 1999's The Soft Bulletin). The four CDs are meant to be listened to simultaneously, on four different sound systems. Each CD has one-quarter of the album's music; listening to a single disc will merit only long silences and bass riffs without context; all four discs will yield a surround-sound experience that allows you to utilize volume controls to bring out certain aspects of the music. No one seems to know what to make of the album; NME called it a "work of genius" while Pitchfork dropped the 0.0 hammer, putting it in the category of "completely useless things no one should have bothered with."

But even in the age of the Internet, listening to Zaireeka is a difficult endeavor. Sure, I could find the four tracks mixed together on YouTube, but where's the fun in that? Part of the purpose of Zaireeka is to be able to control the sound mixing yourself. So I recruited my ever-patient girlfriend, and we sat down with two CD players, two laptops, and several external speakers. After a few false starts (synchronizing four CDs is as hard as it sounds), we were off.
The sound initially came from all four corners of the room at once, "This is track one..." And then, from one corner, "Number one." From across the room, "...number two." Then, almost faster than my ears could process, from the two other speakers, "...Number three...number four...", each CD counting off in such a way that we could confirm we had successfully synchronized the discs. And then came the music.
My Zaireeka experience occasionally shifted into something hyper-cerebral (as my brain tried to pick apart which instruments were coming from which speakers), but mostly I just laid back and let the sounds wash over me. Zaireeka is a bit like Steve Reich applied to rock music; even if we had synchronized the discs perfectly, the CDs were bound to get slightly off over the next 45 minutes. So what began as tightly-synchronized rhythms slowly morphed into longer tones, that echoes and reverberated across the room; notes that appeared in one corner before sounding off in another just a nanosecond later.

As the discs became more out-of-sync, the music became more unsettling. We did a re-sync halfway through, but the Flaming Lips also wrote Zaireeka in order to account for the inevitable; while the first track has precise rhythmic construction, the album has more drones and long tones as it goes on, giving  the effect of playing music in a cavernous room, full of echoes due to the slightly out-of-sync music. You're never quite sure where the sounds are going to come from next, and your brain keeps trying to compensate for the nanosecond gaps between the four different tracks.
But what was most fun about Zaireeka, even over the dense, echoey music, was the fact that listening to this album is necessarily a social experience. I couldn't listen to Zaireeka on headphones if I wanted to. There's no easy way to pause, either; if someone called my phone, they were out of luck. Once started, there's no stopping Zaireeka.
I listen to a lot of music for this project, and out of necessity I listen to it whenever I can, throwing CDs in my car while driving to the store, pulling out the iPod while waiting in line at the bank, turning on iTunes while responding to emails. But Zaireeka is an album that demands your full attention, not only because of the requirements for set-up, but because the flowing quadrophonic sound system is different enough to keep your ears off-balance. Marshall McLuhan once declared that, "The medium is the message," and the four-disc medium of Zaireeka can function as a message to sit back and listen intently. There aren't many excuses left to sit in the dark with a friend, uninterrupted, listening to a full album, but Zaireeka is one of them.
WEEK 110
ARTIST OF THE WEEK: The Flaming Lips
WHAT I KNEW BEFORE: I knew that the Flaming Lips were weird. I just didn't know how weird.
MY LISTENING: I listened to The Soft Bulletin (1999) every day this week. I also listened to Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots (2002) three times, Embryonic (2009) twice, and Zaireeka (1997) and Transmissions from the Satellite Heart (1993) once each.
I know I spent 800 words above bragging about how much fun I had with Zaireeka. But that album, as weird and mesmerizing as it was, was the outlier as far as my Flaming Lips experience this week. While Zaireeka is almost a sound-collage, like a "Revolution #9" that lasts 45 minutes and doesn't suck, albums like The Soft Bulletin and Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots are both surprisingly intricate, abandoning Zaireeka's drones for a kind of rock chamber music, with hundreds of different sounds utilized in a small way for a specific purpose. Listen to "A Spoonful Weighs a Ton," with its strings and harp and backing vocals; it sounds calculated when compared to Zaireeka (not to mention positively mainstream).
Not only that, but Soft Bulletin and Yoshimi were both surprisingly tender records, as the band uses Wayne Coyne's thin, high-pitched voice to create some very warm music. "Waitin' for a Superman" is perhaps the most affecting track on The Soft Bulletin, though "The Gash" shows the band has a certain operatic/Bohemian-rhapsodic flair ("Will the fight for sanity be the fight for our lives?"). And Yoshimi, despite the ridiculous and vague concept of a clone fighting pink robots, contains some beautiful melodies, like "Fight Test" and "Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots Part 1".
All this gets thrown out the window with the recent Embyronic, a double album constructed to sound like a nightmare. The light orchestration and airy melodies are replaced with a demonic rock-stomp on songs like "Powerless" and "Worm Mountain." Embryonic is a fun ride, but far heavier and harder to swallow than anything from the Soft Bulletin/Yoshimi years.

The worst song I heard this week was the last track on Zaireeka, "The Big Ol' Bug Is The New Baby Now," which fails to stick the landing. After seven tracks of densely intricate rock music, the album ends with a silly ditty about Wayne Coyne's dogs - a neat joke if I hadn't been forced to take Zaireeka so seriously by the very nature of the format.
The album ends with a bunch of dogs barking, which leads to the question of what the Flaming Lips find so appealing about animal sounds. They utilize Karen O to make sounds on Embryonic's "I Can Be A Frog," a filler track if there ever was one. And "Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, Part 2" contains a bunch of annoying squealing pigs over the synthesizers.

FURTHER EXPLORATION WOULD ENTAIL: The Flaming Lips have been making music for longer than I've been alive, so there's a lot of directions to go. At War With The Mystics (2005) had a lukewarm reception, but is apparently in the Soft Bulletin/Yoshimi vein that I like so well. But Clouds Taste Metallic (1995) is apparently a pretty good release from their 90s stuff. And then there's the indie science-fiction film Christmas on Mars that they made. And their full-album cover of Dark Side of the Moon. And their live concerts, which are apparently the trippiest thing you can get without breaking federal laws.
BEST SONG YOU'VE HEARD: "She Don't Use Jelly"
This was apparently their breakout hit. You might have heard it on Beverly Hills, 90210.

Or Beavis and Butthead.


NEXT WEEK'S ARTIST: Continuing the trend of "avant-garde rock bands whose name begins with 'F'," I'll be listening to Faust.