The Flaming Lips - The Flaming Lips and Heady Fwends
Record Label: Warner Bros.
Release Date: April 21, 2012 (2XLP); June 26, 2012 (CD, Digital)
The Flaming Lips and Heady Fwends was initially introduced to the world in the form of a double LP on Record Store Day, but thankfully, it's now received the wide release it justly deserves, albeit in a slightly different form. A cursory assessment carried out by glancing up and down the track listing and looking at the guest appearances-- it seems that Lips mastermind Wayne Coyne's Rolodex of guest collaborators is sufficiently thick to rival that of any hip-hop emcee-- would probably be that the album is little more than a jokey collection of odds and ends that is ultimately just a curio for diehards only. That out-of-hand dismissal is short-sighted and neglects to consider one very important fact: The Flaming Lips, even thirty years into their career, remain as creative and forward-thinking as ever. Maybe even more so. Heady Fwends, rather inexplicably, plays much like a proper follow-up to their 2009 mindfuck Embryonic, and their ability not only to bring a project like this together at all, but to make it work so cohesively and effectively, is as strong a testament as any to their genius.
The Flaming Lips never seemed to be constrained by prevailing trends or conceptions of what is or isn't acceptable-- indeed, it's still sort of mind-boggling that they've been housed by a major like Warner Brothers for two decades-- but Fwends is really a depiction of the band at their loosest and most no-holds-barred. The first track dares to feature, of all people, Ke$ha, an artist whose appeal to anyone with functioning eardrums is probably only visual, and even then only if you dig trashy drunk chicks with daddy issues. (Guilty.) But damn if "2012", a pummeling nod to The Stooges' "1969", isn't as electrifying an opener as I've heard all year and a fitting harbinger of the headtrip to come. On the song, Ke$ha sings, "Put me under your acid spell, 'cause I want my mind to be completely toast." The Lips spend the next hour obediently obliging.
Like just about everyone lately, they enlisted the help of indie-rock Zelig Justin Vernon, with whom they collaborate on "Ashes in the Air", a piece whose old-school psychedelic guitar drones and futuristic laser sounds mesh with Vernon's distinctive vocal in a strange sort of Bowie-esque collage. "Strange" is one of those words that's commonly used to describe The Flaming Lips music, but it's almost always complimentary. And for all their strangeness, they have proven themselves consistently capable of meting out gut-wrenching melodies thinly veiled by their noise explorations. The Edward Sharpe collaboration "Helping the Retarded to Know God" and "Children of the Moon", on which they team up with Tame Impala, perfectly embody their knack in this department, capturing that hazy mixture of wistfulness and existential dread they have done so flawlessly on career highlights such as "Do You Realize?", "Waitin' for a Superman" and "Mr. Ambulance Driver".
As those masterful catalog cuts indicate, for a band so firmly ensconced in drug culture, the fun in The Flaming Lips music mostly stems from their bizarre concepts and imagery; even an album with a superficially amusing title like Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots is replete with bittersweet sentimentality. If its songs are jokes, they are jokes that Coyne and company take pretty seriously. So it's rather nice to hear them collude with Prefuse 73 on a burst of frenzied glee worthy of the title "Supermoon Made Me Want to Pee". On "That Ain't My Trip", co-conspirator Jim James opens with the line, "You always want to shave my balls." Working in concert with Yoko Ono on "Do It!", the title of which reveals the tune's only lyrics, the band recreate the Krautrock rhythms of Can in a similar way to recent Radiohead, which makes for the most oddly satisfying moment on the record. And the Lips join forces with Erykah Badu on Roberta Flack's soul classic "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face" and transform it into a ten-minute bliss-out. Clearly, these guys don't give a fuck, and I'm at a loss coming up with reasons why they should.
They will never top Soft Bulletin but have regained that consistency they had in the late 90s and early 2000s. That said, my Austrailan copy of Soft Bulletin doesn't have the Spiderbite Song. That has always made me sad.