This Week in Music, April 16, 2013: Different drones for Flaming Lips

The Flaming Lips: The Terror

New release (Warner Bros.; tour dates)
Photo by George Salisbury

Telepathic surgery. Ego tripping at the gates of hell. I’ve allowed the Flaming Lips to take me deep inside myself and pull me far afield. But I can’t submit entirely to The Terror.

From the band’s beginning 30 years ago, listening to the Lips has involved (in the words of a song title and Jim DeRogatis’s biography) staring at sound. Still, when you consider their primary releases over the past decade, there has been a general adherence to comparatively traditional song structure, whether on the dreamy Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots (2002) or the more earthbound At War with the Mystics (2006). Even the audacious double album Embryonic (2009) relied on band-based settings, especially with the addition of drummer Kliph Scurlock as a full-time member, joining (mostly) guitarist Wayne Coyne, (mostly) bassist Michael Ivins, and official multi-instrumentalist Steven Drozd. Now, however, despite the arrival of a fifth member, Derek Brown (who’s yet another multi guy), and the continuing assistance of strong-willed co-producer Dave Fridmann, “the band” has filtered down to largely intangible sonics. If the result isn’t exactly metaphysical machine music, it’s a collection of drones that, unlike the military ones that kill, tend to merely deaden.

From here, the story is best told by the Lips themselves, in the press notes:

Exhibit A. Coyne: “Toward the end of the mad frenzy that was the Flaming Lips and Heady Fwends collaboration, a second studio was being used to record in while the main studio was being used to mix in. And often the demands of the main studio would be so overwhelming that when we would retreat, starting sometimes at 1 in the morning, to the second studio, our music would be made in a kind of sleepwalker’s dimension. . . . Steven and I were determined to navigate around the drudgery of production, trying our best to keep every moment, every sound, every word as it happened in this ‘sleepwalker’s dimension.’ You see, we weren’t really trying to make a new record, and we were being completely self-indulgent.” Other bands might deem such a record to be A Side Project That We’ll Figure Out What to Do With Later. But the Lips have deemed it an official band release. Wise choice? Debatable. One thing’s for sure: The sleepwalking atmosphere explains the excessively ethereal quality of Coyne’s vocals, which hover listlessly above the tracks.

Exhibit B. Drozd, on “You Are Alone”: “The musical starting point of The Terror. The wonderful freedom of no chord changes: a main vocal melody and two recurring synth melodies over a synthetic, disconnected loop . . . .” On this album, the danger is that one man’s freedom can be another man’s tedium. Especially when “melody” is often a charitable word for a snippet of a phrase — and when the overriding musical ingredients are indeed “synthetic” and “disconnected.”

Exhibit C. Drozd, on “Try to Explain”: “The low oscillating synth clouds the major/minor drama underneath.” Problem is, track after track has a sonic oscillation that often doesn’t just cloud the music but obscures it. In fact, beyond very few exceptions, the album’s rhythms are based not on live drums but on artificial throbbing. Sometimes, it’s a vague, persistent presence. Other times, it’s a disturbingly loud and hyperactive heartbeat — or, again in Drozd’s words (re: “Turning Violent”), a set of “damaged electronic pulses.” Over the course of nearly an entire album, it’s annoying.

Exhibit D. Coyne, on “You Lust”: “a kind of religious, unbuilding, relentless, crawling, strange head song dissolving into eerie abstract pieces of electronic mumbles.” Well, there you go. The track actually comes across better than that description, with a tantalizing four-note figure recurring here and there. But the Lips did a more effective job of summoning midperiod Pink Floyd on Embryonic’s “Gemini Syringes,” which clocked in at 3½ minutes. “You Lust” tops 13.

Granted, there are some things to admire. “Be Free, a Way” and “Butterfly, How Long It Takes to Die” have attractive melodic elements. “Always There . . . in Our Hearts” brings everything to a close with a demented outfit of distorted guitar, white-noise bursts, and actual pounding drums. And the album certainly has a consistent mood. It is not, I hasten to point out, related to the brand of terror that occurred in Boston. Rather, as Coyne sums up in the press notes: “Love, in the end, does not save us. . . . The terror is, we know now, that even without love, life goes on. We just go on. There is no mercy killing.”

Coyne, one more time: “Why would we make this music that is The Terror — this bleak, disturbing, hopeless record?” Well, there was that retreat from mixing Heady Fwends. There’s also catharsis. I’d be willing to give this album another chance in surround sound, if a 5.1 mix ever arrives. Until then, the Flaming Lips will have to take the majority of this trip without me.

YYYs Mosquito

Yeah Yeah Yeahs: Mosquito

New release (Interscope; tour dates)
Photo by Dan Martensen; concept by KK Barrett

“Fallen for a guy, fell down from the sky.” Smooth. Should we worry that Karen O has gone soft? “Halo! ’Round his head!” Feathers in any old bed? “In our bed! In our bed!” Attagirl.

Leave it to the Yeah Yeah Yeahs to open their new album by mating the sacred with the profane, by grafting a gospel choir onto “Sacrilege.” It’s an ace move, and there are more of them here, like setting “Subway” to the click-clack of wheels on a track. Karen says Mosquito is the YYYs’ version of a soul record, and you can hear it in the bass groove of “Slave,” which is complemented by some deliciously darting guitar. Karen also says the album is “really playful and tongue-in-cheek at times,” and you can hear that in the deliberately cheesy/breezy “engagement song” of “Always.” Then there’s the closer, which is actually called “Wedding Song.” Soft? Sumptuous. Oh, and just for the record: Hearing the repetition of “suck your blood” in “Mosquito” beats the hell out of sitting through a teenage vampire flick.

And yet . . .

Ten years after the bracing debut Fever to Tell, there are still times when I’m tempted to say to the band, “Is that all there is? Are you still constructing some of your songs on the wispiest of ideas?”

And yet . . .

It’s easy to give the YYYs the benefit of the doubt when they’re also able to take a tune as simple as “Despair” and build it into a grand statement of hope. In other words, on Mosquito, what’s good is very good. And sometimes, that’s enough.

Fall Save revise

Fall Out Boy: Save Rock and Roll

New release (Island; tour dates)
Photo by Pamela Littky

Sound-wise, this album reminds me of what I wrote about Paramore just last week. Which is to say: thick. There’s a lot more pep in Fall Out Boy’s step, but overall, things are overwrought. Although producer Butch Walker makes a gesture to air out the sonics by, for example, applying Foxes (Louisa Rose Allen) to “Just One Yesterday,” he’s beholden to the Force of Nature that is singer Patrick Stump — and the nutty juggernaut that is this band.

Other guests show up for the couple of tracks that aim to end the album with a one-two punch. “Rat a Tat” announces “It’s Courtney, bitch,” but Ms. Love merely comes across like a haranguing Ms. Spears. And when the Boys contend that they’re “only plugged in” to “Save Rock and Roll,” it’s a wonder why they bothered to bring Elton John along when Stump sings lyrics like these: “How’d it get to be only me? / Like I’m the last damn kid still kicking that still believes.” And these: “I cried tears you’ll never see / So f--- you, you can go cry me an ocean and leave me be.”

The Stump speech continues: “I will defend the faith, going down swinging / I will save the songs that we can’t stop singing.” Personally, I’d prefer saving something that has the finesse of the lead single’s title: “My Songs Know What You Did in the Dark.”