An Evaluation of the Flaming Lips' Recent Indiscretions as Filtered Through a Review of Transmissions from the Satellite Heart
I have long been a fan of the Flaming Lips and their often silly, always provocative take on the psychedelic. Lately though, I have been disappointed in how gimmicky their work has become. I first discovered the Lips in about 1995 right as their video for "She Don't Use Jelly" was getting constant rotation from MTV as a buzz clip. I was enamored by the silliness, creativity, and over-the-top lyrics of the band. Plus, they were just plain fun. They seemed to truly enjoy what they were doing, and they made great albums as they seemingly followed their own muse, record sales be damned.
I purchased Transmissions from the Satellite Heart, and was not disappointed. The record had everything that my sixteen year old self was looking for in an album. It was well-produced, but not over the top. The songs were catchy with great melodies and strange lyrics.They busted out of my crappy boom box speakers with a definite purpose. The remastered vinyl reissue only amplifies the staying power of these songs. Listening to the record you realize the importance of production to their overall sound. While it might not look forward to the overproduced later Flaming Lips records, it shows how the band made great use of the technology that would only expand their sound in years to come. The sound still explodes out of the speakers, and listening on headphones only enhances the experience. You can hear the craft-oriented band that would produce The Soft Bulletin, but the experimentation doesn't seem overwrought. The song writing is still crisp and varied, and songs blend seamlessly into each other. There is not a single misstep on the record. Even the cover of "Plastic Jesus" fits in with the overall cohesion of the record.
Wayne Coyne's unquestionable optimism is also prevalent on the record, which remains one of the bands' greatest selling points. Beyond the wall of fuzz and incomprehensible lyrics, the listener can feel and understand the fun the band is having. While his lyrics are not as direct as on later albums, Coyne still speaks candidly to his audience. Perhaps this is the first time that the lyrics really shine on a Lips record. The story-telling only improves on Clouds Taste Metallic and The Soft Bulletin. Yet, personally, I never feel as satisfied as I do when listening to Transmissions. The album remains the Flaming Lips' real masterpiece. They never seem more comfortable then they do here, making their first truly cohesive record. There are no strange noise experiments or forays into Stoogian ecstasy.
Their amateurish earlier recordings captured them at the peak of their garage band and punk flirtations, while their middle better selling albums place them in the category of chamber pop renaissance men. Here we find them refining their sound, while creating an album that plays to their strengths. Clouds Taste Metallic might have a stronger song list, but Transmissions shows the band coming into their own. The solid songs are matched by superior musicianship and studio work. The addition of Steven Drozd to the core group is surely responsible for some of the change. Coyne never had a studio partner that understood his quirky genius before Transmissions -- as one could surmise by Jonathan Donahue's completely different take on the genre in Mercury Rev. The addition of Ronald Jones on guitar also added an instrumental depth to the Lips' sound that we haven't seen since; his guitar playing was truly original, and it seems to have helped kick start one of the last periods that the Lips focused on guitar until they released Embryonic in 2009. While much has been said about Drozd's virtuosity, Jones certainly changed the band's sound. If he remained in the band, they might have not gone in the more orchestral direction that they embarked on, starting with The Soft Bulletin.
I don't want to denigrate the Lips' success with Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots and their later work because I do enjoy those records. I just think that the band was more focused circa Transmissions and Clouds. They were not trying to please as large of a fan base, nor where they trying to outdo themselves. After they released Yoshimi, they seemed to focus their attention even more on studio work and creating a gimmicky live show that, while fun and worth experiencing, tends to push them to more audacious and less rewarding projects. I enjoy all the colored vinyl reissues and interesting packaging ideas, but I think they are getting to be a bit much. Embryonic was a very experimental and satisfying record with guest stars galore, but the current crop of records that they are releasing are bordering on overkill. Nobody but the Flaming Lips think it is a good idea to record a six hour song, or release an album packaged in a human or gummy skull. Yet only the Flaming Lips can succeed in doing such a thing; their fan base is now so varied and rabid that these things will be quickly gobbled up. The problem is that their music is suffering because of it. Just because a band "can" do something, doesn't mean that it should. The Flaming Lips have always been an excessive band who strive to experiment and push the boundaries. I just think that they could push the boundaries in ways that would enhance their music, not at the expense of their fans, who will surely drop dollars for sub par products, or at the expense of their legacy. They have crafted an excellent, if varied, discography that has been exemplified by great records, from the early lo-fi years of Hear It Is through the golden age of Transmissions and Yoshimi , that shouldn't be besmirched by so many cheap novelty projects. These could just be released as Record Store Day bonuses between actual albums. It would make their legacy that much more sustainable and certainly more enjoyable.