Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Guess who rediscovered their guitars and their (real-live) drum set?

The Flaming Lips, that’s who.

Now I realize that there is a chance that the following the boys have picked up due to their softer, weirder compositions on their last two discs may be a bit turned off by their new one, At War With The Mystics, but it would be a shame if that proved true. One thing that has always worried me about the more recent fans – and here I run the real risk of playing the same card those fucking 'Deadheads did once "Touch Of Grey" became a hit and fratburbia discovered "their" band¹ – is the near universal disdain they have for albums pre-Soft Bulletin. Often the discs are derided as weird, tuneless, loud or messy. And they are. And that’s just fine. I mean, I was there for the mid-day bubble-machine at Lollapalooza. I groaned and cheered and found myself generally confused when they played The Peach Pit. I was there when Wayne pulled out a piano and told us a story about his brother’s amazing powers over the tiny yet mighty waterbug. I would like to note, however, that I was not there at the first Suicide practice², even though the Lips have covered one of their songs.

The point is that one of the things that made The Lips so loved, and probably the same reason Warner Brothers kept pouring money into the band, even when they wanted to record an album that could only be heard if four CDs were played at the same time, is because they have always been honest in their attempts to create music that will resonate, effect and move you.

Now the new disc is by no means such a great leap backwards that it will completely threaten their newer fan-base. At least I hope it’s not. I don’t think it is. I do think it is a sign that the band has finally dealt with all the turmoil of the past decade and now feel free to re-embrace a bit of the guitar weirdness they’ve steered clear of all this time in an attempt to make a break from their past sound. I’m not even sure the band realized they were doing this, but hindsight being what it is I think it’s fairly obvious that once drummer Steve Drozd moved off the (drum) kit³ (full-time) the band took a turn into willfully exploring new territory at the expense of the familiar. This was healthy. But it was also a little frustrating for long-time fans because while the resulting albums were lovely and stupendous and altogether breathtaking they seemed to lack the spontaneity that made their earlier work great as well.

At War With The Mystics seems to be an attempt to bridge this self-induced gap. There are finally a few guitar freak-outs and the drums return to a pulse-pounding center stage on a few of the tracks. There are still the languid symphonic pieces that float and tickle the yin but the yang returns with a vengeance to anchor these pieces creating, for me at least, the most satisfying album by the band since In A Priest Driven Ambulance.

As a post-script, and maybe this will provide a tough of context within which to view this rhetorical survey, I confess to being leery of the band after last year’s documentary and career spanning video collection since such things are usually signs of a band near the end of its creative tether. Instead I should have never underestimated the boys and seen these actions for what they actually were; the closing of one chapter in order to make way for a grand new one.

¹Please note I am not truly confusing recent Lips converts with Johnny-come-lately-wanna-be-hippy-‘Deadhead-types. This is actually more of a slam against pretentious assholes like me that always trumpet the fact that we were first to the party and then gripe about having to share our cake. This is, of course, after we’ve yelled ourselves blue in the face about how tasty the cake is and why people that aren’t eating it are stupid. This is known as the Paradox of the Music Critic™. It is a plague amongst hipster and post-hipsters like myself. If I knew how to solve this paradox to everyone’s satisfaction I would truly be a god among men.
²Lame joke, I know. Hey, it’s early!

³I could make an obvious reference to moving onto another kind of kit but not only would that be in poor taste, it really has nothing to do with this piece. I do feel the need to include the possibility of that reference though to head off the folks that might think I'm implying something that I'm not.

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