Friday, May 17, 2019

The Soft Bulletin was released 20 years ago today…

The Flaming Lips in 1999 looking almost presentable!
Most of you probably didn't hear The Soft Bulletin the day it came out, since the May 17, 1999 release date was for the UK version (the US version, with a slightly different track listing, wasn't released until June 22). It took me a week to finally track down the import version after stalking every indie record shop in Chicago on a daily basis.*

I had heard The Flaming Lips debut their new direction a few months earlier at La Zona Rosa in Austin during SXSW. I believe it was only their second live set as a newly configured trio (they played two days earlier in Dallas as a test run) and they went on well after their supposed 1 a.m. start time. I remember being confused by Steven Drozd being set up behind a bank of keyboards and VCRs. I had heard Zaireeka, but was expecting the band to play as a power trio, full of Wayne Coyne guitar squalls, Michael Ivins thunder bass and Drozd's monster drumming.

That was obviously not what happened.

The trio played three of their older "guitar" songs, reconfigured to match the new aural direction the band was headed, instead relying on one Zaireeka cut and a slew of material no one in the room had ever heard, including "Race For The Prize" and "The Gash." The band was still kicking out psychedelic anthems, but there was a whole new dimension and tenderness that flowed through the new songs that BLEW ME AWAY.

The piece I turned in recapping that year's SXSW for The Chicago Flame isn't online, and one day I'll dig through my hard copy collection of my writing to find it, but I do remember no one in the office believed The Flaming Lips would sound the way I described them. At the time they were still only known to mainstream audiences as the "She Don't Use Jelly" band who appeared briefly on an episode of 90210. And my music friends who had been following the band along with me since the late '80s didn't believe it either.

Obviously The Soft Bulletin is now lauded as a modern classic, and that Austin show I saw bore the genesis of Coyne's turning to theater props to help convey the weight of the music since he no longer had a guitar to bash away at. Back then the DIY stage show aesthetic had always been a part of the band's DNA—their shows were visual spectacles even if it was merely through draping every piece of gear with Christmas lights and setting up a bunch of strobes they carried in themselves—but in The Soft Bulletin era they took the visual component up a notch. And since then have taken it up about 10,482 notches with varying degrees of success.

I'm older, so to me I'll always prefer the albums of the pre-Bulletin Lips when considering my favorite portion of their body of work—it's just the stuff I heard first that hardwired the band into my brain, I'm totally O.K. with folks who only love the era Bulletin kicked off—but I don't think they ever released anything in that period, or are likely to do so in any later period, that caught me so totally off guard and filled me with so much melancholic joy.

*This was back in the days when music wasn't immediately online for bands like the Flaming Lips, so all I had between the show and the album's release was the memory of the music (I hummed the melody of "Race For The Prize" on a daily basis between that March and May, for sure—it was all I had). Yes, Napster and its compatriots were certainly rising, but they were still depending on more mainstream releases pilfered from CD packaging plants and the like to fill their online offerings. The Flaming Lips didn't qualify as a band early pirates felt the need to obtain and disseminate online. Yet.

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