Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Freak Out vol. 5: The Big One

I have to admit, I’ve been putting off writing this a bit. Why? Because this album is awesome. Silly awesome. I fear not doing it justice. But the project must trek on!

So after Telepathic Surgery there were some important personnel changes in the band. Drummer Richard English split from the band, leaving only Wayne and Michael behind (which makes you realize those last albums were just 3 people and Wayne as the only guitarist – amazing). They replaced him with Nathan Roberts, but far more importantly added 2 new members. First, guitarist Jonathan Donohue, now of Mercury Rev. I shared this with Q and Tex this weekend - I always knew Donahue went on to be in Mercury Rev but am not a big fan of theirs so just assumed he was the Rev guitarist. Nope – he’s the singer. That bizarre, freaked out dude who fronts Mercury Rev who is strong in his dreams? That’s the guy. Along with Donahue they added another future Mercury Rev member in producer Dave Fridmann. They new line up played some shows, felt good, and headed into the studio. And…


It seems obvious to say, but what immediately jumps out at you here is the production. Fridmann is one of those George Martin-esque producers where the band without him is just not the same band. Best example of this is on “Mountain Side” a great song that easily could have fit on earlier album, but the difference in production here is insane. He pulls the vocals to the front and makes them sound crisp and clear. He allows that background chaos that has always been a staple of the Lips, but manages to control that chaos in a new way, choosing the moments that burst through – namely the vocals, and that tight, short, but great Donohue guitar solo.

This sense of controlling the chaos can also be seen on “Stand in Line” – which fills the position of spacey freak out, but this time it’s down to 4 minutes instead of 9 and is much the better for it.

So, with some time freed up, they get to take a more standard song and push it up to soaring heights. The result is “Five Stop Mother Superior Rain” which blows everything they’d done before (and a lot of what they’ve done since) out of the water. Just an amazing epic song that captures all the beauty and dissonance this band offers, plus their weird take on religion, the power of the universe, and all the great stuff that makes this band who they are. In a lot of ways, this one song is the turning point for the band – the point where they discover just how beautiful their music can be, without sacrificing any of their oddness. This idea is reinforced on the closing cover of “What a Wonderful World”, which again captures that sense of beauty, particularly through a great high guitar line during the first chorus.

If for some reason you don’t own this, here’s “Five Stop”

There are a ton of highlights on this album: “Unconsciously Screamin’”, which is their great “single” from the album and really pulls them into the state of great modern alternative music rather than 70s influence; “God Walks Among Us Now”, a high energy quick thrill ride, “Shine on Sweet Jesus” – the perfect album opener. Really it’s all amazing, but I’m rambling.

The point is, you must own this album – there’s just no reason not to. I would be interested to hear some of your takes, so perhaps will hold off for now…

One last small note – my version is the 2 disc set that came out a few years back and includes The Mushroom Tapes, an album of demos for Ambulance recorded without Fridmann or English. It’s nothing great, but a fascinating look at how much the production adds here. One highlight though is Donohue singing prominent backing vocals on “Five Stop Mother Superior Rain”, and suddenly you hear that yes, this is Mercury Rev’s singer. Very odd.


drischord said...

Yeah, this is definitely where I start caring about this band. There aren't enough hours in the day to wade through their noise experiments, but this stuff is definitely fun.

Fridmann is definitely an auteur behind the mixing board. No question that he did great things for Flaming Lips, Mercury Rev, Sparklehorse and many others. But in recent years, starting around Yoshimi, I've found him to be a weight around the Lips' ankles. They really need to take off in a new direction at this point (I know you haven't gotten there yet, VC; I look forward to it), and I don't think they should bring Fridmann along.

They need to re-discover their inner punks-- something more along the lines of this record than At War With the Mystics.

Eric said...

I hadn't really listened much to this one (though I had the two disc set) but took it out in anticipation of this post, and it's way better than I remember. Loses some steam on Side 2, but overall the songs are great and powerful. A la Drischord, here is the definitive order of Flaming Lips albums from Best to Worst:

1) Clouds Taste Metallic
2) Soft Bulletin (sometimes these two switch)
3) Hit to Death In the Future Head
4) Transmissions from the Satellite Heart
5) In a Priest Driven Ambulance
6) Yoshimi
7) At War With the Mystics
Impossible to Rank) Zaireeka (I've only really heard it twice!)

Via Chicago said...

Not to jump too far ahead, but I'm with you drischord - I'm not entirely sure it's Fridmann they need to lose but they need a sever personnel shake-up. I'd say their 3 high water marks were Priest, Clouds and Soft Bulletin - 2 of those 3 came after the band had a major overhaul in their line-up that forced them to rethink themselves. They need that reevaluation badly at this point. To be continued in a few albums...

Eric - I'm fascinated that you put Future Head above this. I'm relistening to that today and will contemplate such an idea. But I can't slag on side 2 for the sheer power of Mountain Song and God Walks Among Us Now, both of which rule.

drischord said...

It is interesting to think about all the lineup changes that have occurred around the nucleus of Wayne Coyne and Michael Ivins.

I had the great pleasure of interviewing these guys in college, sitting on the balcony at the Metro about 5 hours before their set, and I was so taken by the fact that Wayne and Michael are basically two different manifestations of the same person. Wayne is the extrovert, Michael the introvert. Damn if those two don't finish each other's sentences. I think you get some of that in the Fearless Freaks movie, but seeing them in person was striking.

Via Chicago said...

I'm fascinated by the Wayne/Michael dynamic. I don't think it was until relatively recently that I began to see Michael as such an integral part of the band. I mean, he's so quiet, both from a personality standpoint and musically (seriously, name me one Lips song with a really memorable bass line) that he's easy to forget. I think I'd pretty easily describe the Lips as an A Type band around Wayne. And yet - are they? Could they exist without what Michael brings to the band (whetever that may be)?

I should say that I'm not doubting that he brings a lot - I'm sure he does. It's just so intriguing to me that he's the only non-Wayne staple of the band, and yet still, after a 25 year career (whoa) I don't know exactly what role he plays - probably because whatever he does, he doesn't draw attention to it. I quite admire that.

drischord said...

He's considered the "sound guru" of the band and in this interview I did, he said that he considers that contribution to outweigh his bass work.

At this point Steven Drozd is basically composing all the music per se, while Wayne provides the lyrics and overall vision/direction for the band. Michael Ivins is definitely more content behind the scenes, and like I said, he's much more involved in the "sound" rather than the music itself.

But he and Wayne are almost in lock-step with one another mentally. It's bizarre because they're so different on the surface, but they both remarked how they've given totally separate interviews and wound up saying almost the exact same thing down to individual words.

It would be impossible for the public to accept the band without Wayne, but I'm also not sure what would happen on the internal level if Michael were to ever leave.

Eric said...

I feel like it's gotta be A-type-- it's pretty parallel to Wilco, in that you have the recognizable lead guy and his loyal bass-playing sidekick who sticks with him through all of the lineup overhauls even as the other contributors who rotate through contribute to greater or lesser degrees. Right now, as Drischord points out, Drozd is incredibly central to the band musically, so I'm not sure what would happen if he left either. It might have been A, and at this point it's C-type with that core trio.

drischord said...

I feel like Wayne and Michael consider themselves to be much more equals than Tweedy and Stirratt do.

(I say this having also interviewed John Stirratt-- never have spoken to Jeff Tweedy though.)

I think the public perceives Wayne Coyne and Jeff Tweedy the same way, but I think that Wilco is way more A-type than Flaming Lips.