The Flaming Lips are on an apparently endless creative stream. Last year saw the release of no less than 9 EPs of new music - two of those being the much famed 6-hour and 24-hour songs, which, by themselves, already top some bands' entire discographies length - and now they're back with an entire album of (mostly) new material, The Flaming Lips and Heady Fwends, entirely cut with the collaboration (as the name implies) of some prominent names of today's-music scenario, ranging from well-known mainstream faces like Chris Martin and Ke$ha (!!!) to fairly unknown acts like Lightning Bolt or Prefuse 93.
Released by Lovely Sorts of Death Records on April 21st especially for Record Store Day (what a contribution, huh?), as a vinyl-only (for now) limited edition, Heady Fwends is surely on the upper side of the Lips' ranked discography, at least on the opinion of this humble reviewer, which in turn makes up for a very good surprise. After all, when the news of an all-out collaboration full-length album came out, no matter how good the Lips may be, realists (myself included) were expecting nothing more than a fairly disjointed album with, surely, some (optimistically, half?) great cuts and a lot of awkwardly-placed filler; best-case scenario most of the tracks would be fine cuts, but hardly function as an body of work. Knowing that one of the songs would have Ke$ha's contribution did not help. Well, bloody hell, "colour me wrong", I thought, as I finished my first listening of the album - my fault, of course, for trying to make predictions in art, there's no "realisticism" here (or anywhere, since the word doesn't exist, but you get the drift).
Which leads me to a little interruption to give my sincere apologies to Ke$ha - even though I still can't stand her music - since "2012 (You Must Be Upgraded)," the much-talked-about collab (that also features old-school rapper Biz Markie - I wonder if there's somebody in the music business that Wayne Coyne doesn't know) that opens the album is one of its best cuts, by far.
However, it's not fair to say "by far" at any given moment here. Yes, there are one or two (and I say this in a hesitating manner because it's also not fair to judge something in such a short period of time) tracks that fail to match the rest of the album's quality, but even so, the album is tremendously cohesive for something composed of 13 tracks created at different times (some of them were already released on those last year's EPs; that's why I said "mostly" before) with different people. And even those tracks, which are "Supermoon Made Me Want to Pee" and "Girl, You're So Weird", before I forget, have some pretty good moments.
Since 1999, you can always count on some great instrumental passages on a Lips' song. Also, props for them for managing to convey such varied influences under the authentically Flaming-lipnian (sue me) psychedelic wall of distortion from 2009's Embryonic (an album not as good as this, by the way), filtering the other artists' input in a way that the album still sounds theirs, but without losing any of the freshness brought by the collaborators - and they did. At least you'll be able to notice it in the songs featuring those that are familiar to you. The thing is that the Lips themselves are not exploring new territory here (explicitly, at least), let's clear that up now. Instead they're making amazing music, and that's it.
Here, possibly more than ever, the Lips are twisted, at the very core of the songs. Maybe it's all the collaborations, maybe it's the as-underground-as-a-new-Lips-release-can-be nature of the album; I don't know, but no song here, for all good no bad, ever settles in itself. It's always moving; ever-pulsating music. Psychedelic, indeed.
Split across two records, bookending sides A and D are the album's strongest ones. The aforementioned "2012" is among the catchiest things The Flaming Lips have ever done (again, I'm dumbfounded). Worthy of note for the fanatics: there are two versions of this song to be found, fan labeled as "Henry Rollins" and "Doctor Who" versions; different base-samples being used in each. To know which version you have, check the A-side matrix of your record: if it reads YOU AND ME WE KNOW THAT LOVE IS TRUE, you have the former, while if you see the message YOU MUST BE UPGRADED. THANKS DOCTOR WHO!!!, well... that's the obvious one. You're welcome. Back to the review, "Ashes In the Air" features the multi-talented band Bon Iver (who unfortunately seem to be using all their creativity on feats, as shown by their second album - something that I'm okay with as long as his collabs keep resulting in tracks as good as this). Under the track's synth-pop atmosphere, Justin Vernon's echoing sorrow-drenched vocals soar strongly, being an indispensable aspect of the track's intense power. Meanwhile, "Helping the Retarded to Find God", on the other hand, has a feels-like-home sound closer to Soft Bulletin-era Lips. How can we not appreciate that?
Side B follows with a quartet featuring Prefuse 73, Tame Impala, Jim James and Nick Cave, and apart from the already mentioned "Supermoon," the other three collabs are no less than commendable, to say the least. A gentle heart-alike beat is the base for the otherwise spacial instrumentation on "Children of the Moon;" pure gorgeous haziness invades the ears. That doesn't last long, though, being soon overcame by the fuzzy muffled distortion of "That Ain't My Trip" (speak for yourself, Wayne). The side, then, ends with the beautiful juxtaposition of Nick Cave's organic rawness and Coyne's familiar falsetto on "You, Man? Human???"
Side C, however, is even better than the previous. The triad "I'm Working at NASA on Acid" / "Do It!" / "Is David Bowie Dying?" boasts The Flaming Lips going from post-apocalyptic western atmospheres to Boredoms-inspired chaotic-melody inversions (as you would expect from a Lightning Bolt collaboration), all in the same song (also expected, it is among the best of the album) to a crescent of pounding electrodelic beats under sampled mantras (hi Yoko - probably the best thing you recorded in some time; no hard feelings) to European-cold slow-burning machinery music (Coyne surprisingly being the less enthralling part of the song, though).
Finally, opposing the astonishingly increasingly mania of present-day bands to place the best songs of an album mainly in its first halves, on side D you'll find the album's best track and another surprisingly good cut done with another unexpected guest. "The First Time I Ever Saw Your Face," although a cover (and truth be told, basically a new song, as far as the Lips part goes), is among the best songs the band has ever recorded. I won't even go through the trouble of coming up with another adjective-fueled phrase here. Thank you The Flaming Lips for being awesome, thank you Erykah Badu for the blissful vocals, thank you Ewan MacColl for writing the song, thank you Roberta Flack for making the song famous, thank you Wikipedia for making me look like a music connoisseur. See? The song has even left me in a good mood.
I don't even feel like criticizing "Girl, You're So Weird," so I'll just skip it. This track-by-track nuisance ends with "I Don't Want You to Die," which is what Chris Martin would sound like if he had balls. No, I'm kidding - and I'll stop it, I promise. Coldplay might be far from its glory days, but I like Chris, and I like him even more in this song. Maybe this is the one song where the musicians' artistry is best mixed, and one of the most accomplished results among the collaborations, much like the Ke$ha one (artistry part aside on her case) - and that's for showing how some good sequencing makes a enormous difference in the appreciation of an album.
(Again, I'm not letting you have the best tracks here - even though the two posted ones are great. Be glad for having an appetizer and don't bust my balls. Get the album.)
You might have noticed I didn't mention lyrics. If you did, too bad, 'cause I'm not planning to. In a similar but at the same time completely different fashion (now I'm just getting lazy, I guess) to Sigur Rós' music, vocals, even when clearly sung, are much more intrinsically connected to the instrumentals than most situations in which they're used (by others). Therefore, I see lyrics in Lips' music as a curious supplement rather than a indispensable aspect - of course, all music can be treated in such a way, but there's cases and cases... I can listen to and enjoy a fuckin' lot Bob Dylan without paying attention, but no doubt it always gets better with the lyrics in mind. That is not the Lips case; a fact that sometimes leaves them on the verge of being called an instrumental band, by me at least, in the sense that the vocals don't have that separate entity aspect that we're used to in popular music.
That being said - it was annoying me to not have explained it before - I guess all that's left is for you to listen to the goddamned album. And enjoy it.
Sadly, as said before, the album isn't for sale in digital form. And the vinyl won't be re-pressed. Let's hope this comes out on CD or for digital sale once it loses its original purpose for being rare.