Flaming Lips – Embryonic

January 01, 1970

(Warner Bros.)




“I wish I could go back-go back in time,” sings Wayne Coyne,
in that trademark upper-register, vulnerable warble of his, in “Evil,” the
third track on the Flaming Lips’ 13th (counting last year’s Christmas On Mars soundtrack) studio album. Cocooned by a gentle,
synchronized pulse of keyboards (piano, synth and mellotron) and eventually
joined by an angelic vocal chorus, that voice seems wistful, nostalgic – as
befits a record titled Embryonic. But
is this true nostalgia, or is the preternaturally playful Coyne laying one of
his lyrical red herrings?


“No one ever really can go back in time,” he subsequently
advises, and indeed, though 2009 may be the 40th anniversary of
Woodstock and the world’s turned tie-dye all over again, there’s nothing on the
Lips’ CV to date that suggests Coyne & Co. (Michael Ivins, Steven Drozd and
Kliph Scurlock) long to get back to any garden
– ‘60s, ‘70s, or the pre-alternative ‘80s milieu that spawned them. Even their
most “sentimental” songs have always betrayed a certain toughness; official
Oklahoma State Rock Song “Do You Realize,” though musically tender and lush on
the surface, isn’t about how life is beautiful, but how life and all its beauty
can slip away before you know it.


The 70-minute Embryonic, then, is probably the most
forward-feeling album the group’s done since their space-age symphony from
1999, The Soft Bulletin. Jettisoning
much of the sonic and lyrical aggression of 2006’s uneven At War With the Mystics, it’s a product of what Coyne has broadly
described in interviews as “jamming,” but despite the inclusion of several songs
clocking in excess of five minutes, this is not traditional jamband territory, thanks
in no small part to producer Dave Fridmann’s watchful eye over undue excess and
a Teo Macero-like sensibility informing the editing and mixing of the music.
The record kicks off with the throbbing art-funk of “Convinced of the Hex,” a
Coyneian study in paranoia and cynicism (sings the narrator, “She says, ‘You think there’s a system/ That
controls and affects/ You see, I believe in nothing…'”), then quickly jets off
for a 70+ minute journey through inner space.


Highlights? Almost too numerous to single out. There’s the rumbling,
trippy “The Sparrow Looks Up at the Machine,” with its shards of wah-wah guitar
and electric piano; “See the Leaves,” initially squonky, until it segues into a
shimmery, almost orchestral denouement; the seven-minute “Powerless,” a hypnotic,
effects-splattered slice of Can-like psychedelia; the heavy, almost metallic
wall of sound that is “Worm Mountain,” featuring guests MGMT; the giddily
zooming pop-Prog of “Silver Trembling Hands”; and closing number “Watching the
Planets,” a kind of massed tribal chant/singalong (that’s Karen O yipping and
yelping alongside Coyne and Drozd”).


Thematically, Embryonic may be
a tough study even abetted by a lyric sheet, with Coyne describing much but
revealing little, although there’s a recurring notion about submitting to and
honoring the dictates of nature rather than society’s, and with a definite
distaff component surfacing throughout (several of the songs invoke a “she”),
one imagines that Mother Nature in all her benevolence and judgment, was on Coyne’s mind when he wrote the album. Or
perhaps he’d just run across one of those old Parkay spread ads on YouTube, the
ones with the tag line, don’t mess with
mother nature.
Stranger things have informed record albums over the years,
after all.


At any rate, if you think about all this, it just might paint the Okie
band deeply sentimental after all. The Lips have frequently dwelled upon
futurism, technology, dystopia-versus-utopia, etc. Maybe a desire to return to
a state of natural purity is the ultimate form of nostalgia. But this time
around, kids, don’t head back to the garden – get back to the womb.


Consumer Note: For fans who can’t get enough Lips, the album also
comes as a 2-CD limited/deluxe edition (the 18 tracks are spread across two
discs instead of just one) that includes a bonus audio DVD featuring far
greater sonic quality. According to Warner Bros., “The 96k 24 bit audio has 256
times more resolution than a standard CD which provides greater detail
reproducing the music in it’s full dynamic range. You can now experience
exactly what the artist and producer hear in the studio. Also with the limited
edition comes a 24-page hardcover book containing art, lyrics and band photos,
all housed in a “custom fur box.” Well, that will fit just dandy on the old CD
shelf. And on November 24 a 2-LP vinyl version will be released – it’s called
the “Mega Deluxe Edition” – featuring platters pressed on, respectively,
transparent yellow and transparent blue wax; a CD containing the audio material
is included with the package so you don’t have to get the LPs all scratched up
on that battered USB turntable of yours…


Standout Tracks: “Powerless”
“Silver Trembling Hands,” “Watching the Planets” FRED MILLS


[Blurt exclusive: Wayne Coyne talks about Embryonic and much more. Go here.]

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