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+ Donato Wharton - Body Isolations
+ Svalastog - Woodwork
+ Tim Hecker - Harmony In Ultraviolet
+ Rosy Parlane - Jessamine
+ Jarvis Cocker - The Jarvis Cocker Record
+ Múm - Peel Session
+ Deloris - Ten Lives
+ Minimum Chips - Lady Grey
+ Badly Drawn Boy - Born In The U.K.
+ The Hold Steady - Boys And Girls Together
+ The Blood Brothers - Young Machetes
+ The Places - Songs For Creeps
+ Camille - Le Fil
+ Wolf Eyes - Human Animal
+ Christina Carter - Electrice
+ The Decemberists - The Crane Wife
+ Junior Boys - So This Is Goodbye
+ Various Artists - Musics In The Margin
+ Rafael Toral - Space
+ Bob Dylan - Modern Times
+ Excepter - Alternation
+ Chris Thile - How To Grow A Woman From The Ground
+ Brad Mehldau - Live in Japan
+ M Ward - Post-War
+ Various Artists - Touch 25
+ The Mountain Goats - Get Lonely
+ The White Birch - Come Up For Air
+ Camera Obscura - Let's Get Out of This Country
+ Coachwhips - Double Death
+ Various Artists - Tibetan And Bhutanese Instrumental And Folk Music, Volume 2
+ Giuseppe Ielasi - Giuseppe Ielasi
+ Cex - Actual Fucking
+ Sufjan Stevens - The Avalanche
+ Leafcutter John - The Forest And The Sea
+ Carla Bozulich - Evangelista
+ Barbara Morgenstern - The Grass Is Always Greener
+ Robin Guthrie - Continental
+ Peaches - Impeach My Bush
+ Oakley Hall - Second Guessing
+ Klee - Honeysuckle
+ The Court & Spark - Hearts
+ TV On The Radio - Return To Cookie Mountain
+ Awesome Color - Awesome Color
+ Jenny Wilson - Love And Youth
+ Asobi Seksu - Citrus
+ Marsen Jules - Les Fleurs
+ The Moore Brothers - Murdered By The Moore Brothers
+ Regina Spektor - Begin To Hope
+ The 1900s - Plume Delivery EP
+ Alejandro Escovedo - The Boxing Mirror
+ Function - The Secret Miracle Fountain
+ Sonic Youth - Rather Ripped
+ Loscil - Plume
+ Boris - Pink
+ Deadboy And The Elephantmen - We Are Night Sky
+ Glissandro 70 - Glissandro 70
+ Calexico - Garden Ruin (Review #2)
+ Calexico - Garden Ruin (Review #1)
+ The Flaming Lips - At War With The Mystics
+ The Glass Family - Sleep Inside This Wheel
+ Various Artists - Songs For Sixty Five Roses
+ The Fiery Furnaces - Bitter Tea
+ Motorpsycho - Black Hole/Blank Canvas
+ The Red Krayola - Introduction
+ Metal Hearts - Socialize
+ American Princes - Less And Less
+ Sondre Lerche And The Faces Down Quartet - Duper Sessions
+ Supersilent - 7
+ Band Of Horses - Everything All The Time
+ Dudley Perkins - Expressions
+ Growing - Color Wheel
+ Red Carpet - The Noise Of Red Carpet
+ The Essex Green - Cannibal Sea
+ Espers - II
+ Wilderness - Vessel States

44.1 kHz Archive

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The Flaming Lips
At War With The Mystics
Warner Bros.

Ed: This is the second in a two-part review series investigating the art of the spontaneous-sounding album.

Last time, I talked about jazz, a genre where spontaneity is integral to the music itself. And now for something completely different.

When I first heard of the Flaming Lips, I was living in Glasgow, blissfully ignorant of Soft Bulletins and bleeding sparks. I was on a mission to listen to Scottish music, and Avalanche Records at 34 Dundas Street was my ally. One day, on my ride home from work, I heard a funny song about pink robots on Radio2. The announcer said "And that was the Flaming Lips." Now, my logical leaps are not always the most well-founded. So as I stood in front of the record rack, gazing at a pink Flaming Lips album, I thought "Well, it's in a Scottish record store and is played on Scottish radio — they must be from Scotland." Hmmm... How's that for some deduction?

Years later, I've learned a little more about the Flaming Lips. Fact one: They are not from Scotland, but Oklahoma City. Fact two: They are one of the more innovative bands on the planet — especially in terms of performance. Fake blood. Bunny suits. Boombox experiments. These guys are cracked out. Spontaneity is central to their shows, as it were. Fact three: As time has worn on, their recordings have grown more experimental. What began as quirky lyric explorations with songs like "She Don't Use Jelly" back in 1993 evolved into something altogether more atmospheric and space-age bubbly by the time Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots hit the scene in 2002.

And so, when At War With the Mystics was announced, I knew it would be a sonic adventure. How would the Lips build upon past successes? Would their sound change radically or continue to evolve?

What was hailed in advance press as a "guitar-rock album" comes out of the gates as such. Quickly, though, the eccentricities of the Flips exert themselves.

Take "The Yeah Yeah Yeah Song." A high-strung vocal arrangement gives way to the thundering crunch of drums and fuzzed-out electric guitar. If that's not a vague enough description for you, imagine if the Lips were to provide musical accompaniment for a giant Cyclops clattering down a mountainside, cursing his blindness. Yes, it sounds something like that. Strange, then — if we take this Homeric analogy a step further, the song becomes a fitting warning to all the would-be Odysseuses out there, posing the simple question: "What would you do with all your power?" It's one thing to be an armchair general and another entirely to be the general himself. The thesis here is that power can corrupt the best of intentions; even its subtle misuse can have disastrous ramifications.

(Ed: For what it's worth, the video is even odder — at one point, it involves various cuts of meat being stapled to Lips singer/frontman Wayne Coyne, who is then chased through town by a werewolf.)

Next comes "Free Radicals," a song that has left many reviewers incensed. As always, they are glad to give their sober assessments: "This is absolute rubbish," they shout. Well, to tell you the truth, I find indignation hilarious. Anyone with ears can tell this song was meant to be humorous, from the castrati-like falsetto, to the slapdash guitar line, to the simplistic lyric repetition: "You think you're so radical. But you're not so radical. In fact, you're fanatical. Fanatical." The song even ends mid-breath, for crying out loud, as if to say "Look, this tirade could go on and on, but it will never cover any new ground, so we might as well stop now." Such acquiescent fatalism is really the beauty of "Free Radicals."

Speaking of covering new territory, At War With the Mystics isn't necessarily ground-breaking. But that's never been a prerequisite for a good album. Musically, it's an amalgamated sound, drawing from a large swath of the Lips' back catalogue. "My Cosmic Autumn Rebellion," for example, is kin to several songs off of Yoshimi: Bird sounds à la "It's Summertime," a guitar solo recalling "Utopia Planitia," and lyrics similar to those on "Do You Realize??" and "Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots Pt. 1." Compare, if you will, the old ("Do you realize that everyone you know someday will die?" and "You won't let those robots defeat me") to the new ("Yes it's true that someday everything dies; we won't let that defeat us"). Even the album artwork (painted by Wayne) is something of a stylistic cross between the covers adorning Yoshimi and The Soft Bulletin.

What makes At War With the Mystics different is spontaneity — and not spontaneity in a jazz sense. Listening to this album you get the feeling that absolutely anything could happen — as if it's taking final form only as it reverberates off your eardrums. Studio chatter is scattered throughout. Weird sounds appear in the midst of songs. For instance, near the beginning of "It Overtakes Me," someone can be heard to say "You can turn it up even a little bit more." It brings to mind the production value of a band like Broken Social Scene; to be sure, there are times when the Flips utilize a similarly dense, overdriven aesthetic. These smidgeons of found sound help instill a feeling of looseness, otherwise difficult to achieve, in a painstakingly constructed studio album.

So what have we learned about spontaneity? It can be an asset to albums. The element of surprise can have powerful effects on the listener. Just so, due to the nature of the recorded beast, everything new becomes old again; the unexpected becomes the routine. So, while spontaneity can help enliven first impressions, it is not the end-all for an album's success — that comes down to the simple factor known as musical quality. By either standard, At War With the Mystics is pretty darn good.

by Sam Ernst

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