Art punks and smart punks return with new records
By Noel Murray
JULY 5, 1999: Oklahoma's premier art-punkers have fashioned a bolt-from-the-blue triumph--one of those rare surprises that emerge occasionally from a band that no one has really been tracking. Granted, The Flaming Lips have made a splash before, most notably with the novelty hit "She Don't Use Jelly" from their 1993 album Transmissions from the Satellite Heart. Even as far back as the late '80s, they won notoriety as fellow travelers to psychedelic noisemakers the Butthole Surfers and the Meat Puppets.
But the Lips seemed to have reached their creative (as well as commercial) peak with Transmissions, which reigned in their tendency toward Sonic Youth-ian sprawl. The best tracks on that album mated a bratty nasal whine with hot, distorted guitars, and the results caught a ride in the mainstream, back when the mainstream was friendlier to the ragged.
Ever since, the Lips have mostly been tinkering in the workshop, releasing an album of even smoother guitar pop (1995's Clouds Taste Metallic) and putting out the experimental instrumental piece Zaireeka, which has to be played on 4 CD players simultaneously. Zaireeka played like a stunt by a band that was tapped out--like Sonic Youth's own dabbling in symphonic noise. Almost simultaneously, though, Flaming Lips were painstakingly assembling a delightful and invigorating pop album.
Since April of 1997, guitarist Wayne Coyne and his bandmates--bassist Steven Drozd and drummer Michael Ivins--have been breaking up rocks in a New York studio, gradually dropping the six-string mayhem in favor of cascading piano and synthesized strings. If it weren't for Coyne's distinctive voice--part Neil Young twang, part Paul Westerberg rasp--and the hallucinatory imagery, The Soft Bulletin would be all but unrecognizable as a Flaming Lips record.
There's a genuine orchestral feel to songs like "A Spoonful Weighs a Ton," which doesn't seem to favor any one instrument or style, but uses analog synths, kettle drums, electronic blips, piano, and slide guitar in a sound that ranges from Young's After the Gold Rush to The Who's Quadrophenia, with a healthy dollop of Dark Side of the Moon. The record is full of such majesty, with songs that begin with lines like, "And though they were sad/They rescued everyone," as though a great story were approaching its grand summation.
In many ways, The Soft Bulletin is similar to Wilco's fine recent album Summer Teeth, which also attempts to recreate the lushness and ambition of The Beach Boys' Pet Sounds. Unlike Wilco, though--or The Beach Boys, for that matter--The Flaming Lips lack a necessary seriousness. Coyne tends to undercut the grandeur of his compositions by trailing off into giddy stoner musings, not to mention brain-freeze instrumentals like "The Observer" and "Sleeping on the Roof." Given how well the album holds together, one wishes that more songs were clearly about something meaningful.
There are key exceptions. The glorious "Race for the Prize," about two scientists trying to beat each other to a cancer cure, was reportedly inspired by the death of Coyne's father; it's also one thrilling tune, sweet yet mournful, with a beat that clicks along like a baseball card in a bicycle wheel. "The Spiderbite Song" is about the near-death experiences of Coyne's friends, and how glad he is that they pulled through. These tracks and a few others match the splendor of the music with powerful themes. Elsewhere, the songs are fairly goofy.
Still, what a fascinating goof. Five years ago, at a dreary Counting Crows concert, the most exciting moment was when the band came out to the strains of the Lips' "She Don't Use Jelly." The entirety of The Soft Bulletin supplies the same feeling I had that night--fleeting exulation.
Pavement bandleader Steven Malkmus bristles at the very title of "bandleader." Back in 1989, he and boyhood pal Scott Kannenberg conceived their project as one of those mysterious European-style outfits that buries their personality behind their music. They even adopted "noms de rock" as SM and Spiral Stairs. But there was no way to hide Malkmus' lyrics, even if (as he dubiously claimed in an early article) he improvised them all in the studio. By the time of their weakest album, 1997's still-pretty-darn-good Brighten the Corners, Malkmus' pithy rhymes and brilliant wordplay were being feted in The New Yorker, and he and Kannenberg were using their real names and posing for photographs. Terror Twilight, Pavement's new album, seems to be a conscious attempt by the group to cut off Malkmus' budding iconization and reclaim their "band-ness." The record has received a lot of advance hype about the 24-track production by Nigel Goodrich (who did Radiohead's OK Computer), but Terror Twilight is clearly a Pavement brainchild, a descendant of their nascent experiments with time signatures, fake codas, and chaos theory. What's new is an emphasis on instrumental byplay--this from a band that could barely play its instruments a decade ago.
For all their courting of the edge, Pavement has always been as fond of Echo and the Bunnymen and R.E.M. as they are of The Fall or Can. To those inspirations, they now add a little Blind Faith. Though Pavement still drops pleasant ditties like "Spit on a Stranger," "Major Leagues," and "Carrot Rope" (your singles, ladies and gentlemen, if anyone will play them), this record is more about tripped-out mind-benders like "Cream of Gold" and "Billie"--hippie noodlings infused with soaring fuzz guitar. The songs "Folk Jam" and "Speak See Remember" have restless multi-part structures that are reminiscent of early Pavement opuses like "Angel Carver Blues/Mellow Jazz Docent." Only now this free-jazz shambling seems more a part of classic-rock traditionalism than European pretension.
As admirable and challenging as Terror Twilight is, though, it's not an utter success. Lately, the band's fondness for mid-tempo ballads and complicated melodies has made their music something of a chore. Certainly, it's a chore worth performing: The new songs have a hidden warmth uncovered by repeated listening. But at first the prospect of wading through Malkmus' flat vocalizing and the band's deliberate slowness is about as appealing as exploratory surgery.
Given time and attention, though, Terror Twilight's qualities become apparent. In contrast to Brighten the Corners, where just about every line Malkmus sang had sting--as though he were compensating for the album's general lack of tunefulness--Terror Twilight's lyrics are subtler and more gentle. Malkmus may declare, "My art is not a wide-open thing/I know," but elsewhere on the album he practically bears his soul, confessing "The message on the mirror says 'Stick with me'/No one's there to read your reflection when I'm gone."
The name of the group's Web site, www.pavementtherockband.com, may be a parody of movie sites, but it's also a statement of identity. As Pavement matures, they're less interested in being the smartest punks in the room. Firmly in their 30s, Malkmus and his partners are now all about delayed gratification--lingering on the bridge before pulling out the hook.
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