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By Michael Henningsen

SEPTEMBER 13, 1999: 

The Flaming Lips The Soft Bulletin (Warner Brothers)

Remember back when Spin first came out in early 1985, and for its first 18 months or so, it didn't really suck too much? One of its first issues had a full-page article on a new Oklahoma City band called the Flaming Lips that compared them favorably to Plasticland and Los Angeles' Paisley Underground bands, two of my main musical obsessions at the time. So I bought their album, thought it sounded like a bad Meat Puppets imitation, gave it to a friend and promptly ignored the Flaming Lips for the next 14 years.

Then suddenly it's 1999 and everybody I know is going positively bugfuck over the new Flaming Lips album, The Soft Bulletin. I remained unconvinced by the raves until I heard the single, "Race for the Prize," while browsing in Natural Sound. Quite possibly the song of the year, "Race for the Prize" is an instant classic built around an indelible hook, a whining drone that sounds like a Mellotron with a damaged strings setting. Or like a tape loop being manipulated by a pitch wheel, supported by a gorgeous, spiralling melody, endless overdubbed layers of lush backing vocals under Wayne Coyne's agreeably pitch-poor voice (he sounds like a Southwestern Jonathan Richman) and elliptical lyrics about dueling scientists.

Those twin preoccupations of barely-in-control science and intoxicating production recur throughout The Soft Bulletin, with vaguely disturbing lyrics obsessing over matters of chaos, decay, and the everyday violence of nature mated to brilliant, often beautiful music assembled like Frankenstein's monster from pieces of the Beatles, the Beach Boys, psychedelia, Wire and My Bloody Valentine. The cover art, which recalls Warner Brothers' distinctive circa-1967 graphic design combined with the sort of amorphous photography and peculiar colors of a Spacemen 3 or Stereolab album, is as perfect a visual metaphor for the music it contains as I have ever seen, up there with the sleeve for MBV's Loveless, the album this most closely resembles.

Impossibly dense and occasionally difficult to get a handle on -- "A Spoonful Weighs A Ton" is a most apt song title -- The Soft Bulletin is also immensely inviting and rewarding. This is the sort of album where repeated listenings, preferably with headphones, reveal unexpected new dimensions. Only the inclusion of two relatively pointless remixes of "Race for the Prize" and "Waitin' for a Superman," which while harmless in themselves kind of disturb the album's flow, keeps this album from receiving the coveted five-doggie rating.


Geri Halliwell Schizophonic (Capitol)

Well, guess what? Not only does Geri Halliwell's solo debut not suck, it actually hangs together better than either Spice Girls album. While not blessed with Melanie Chisholm's amazing voice, or, truth be told, Emma Bunton's fetching looks, Halliwell exudes the self-confidence that's the essence of sex appeal, and her "No, fuck you" delivery of Schizophonic's opening track, "Look At Me," keeps the song's John Barry spy theme vibe from sounding kitschy or campy. Meanwhile, the sultry ballad "Goodnight Kiss" and the sweetly poppy "Lift Me Up" are excellent commercial pop, and though it's easily the weakest song on the album, the salsafied "Mi Chico Latino" actually has more authentically Latin characteristics than Jennifer Lopez's forgettable, Velveeta-like hit single. Schizophonic proves there's life after Spice. Now bring on Mel C's solo album.


800 Cherries Romantico (March)

Manami Marufuji and Masayuki Takahashi create delicate, wispy synthesizer-based pop that sounds like a Japanese version of the Young Marble Giants with a little early Magnetic Fields thrown in. The last track is a surprisingly wistful cover of the Velvet Underground's "Here She Comes Now." One or both of those sentences have already caused you to make up your mind about this album, either pro or con. Personally, I'm very much pro. But it's okay if you feel otherwise.


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