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The Flaming Lips

Embryonic

(Warner Brothers; US: 13 Oct 2009; UK: 12 Oct 2009)

Over the past decade, the Flaming Lips have steadily built their following to the point that they now exist both in the underground and on the fringe of the mainstream. They’ve achieved this rather remarkable feat by releasing a trio of albums that adhere to a similar blueprint: add one part sentimental ballads, one part bombastic rockers, and one part instrumental freakouts, and you’ve got a latter-day Flaming Lips LP.  It’s all become a bit formulaic, yes, but a winning recipe to be sure.


But predictable is a word that should never apply to the Flaming Lips, and any mold that they might have been creating within is completely shattered with Embryonic, the first double LP from the Oklahoma City pioneers. No, there are no weepy ballads à la “Waitin for a Superman” or “Do You Realize??”  Nope, there are no catchy pop-rockers in the vein of “The Yeah Yeah Yeah Song”. Hell, there are only a few tracks with anything resembling a conventional song structure.  You’d have to go all the way back to 1997’s Zaireeka to find a Lips album that is comparable in terms of artistic vision.


But whereas Zaireeka was just as much artistic gimmick as artistic statement (if you recall, it was comprised of four CDs designed to be played simultaneously), Embryonic is 100% the latter. Combining the Lips’ long-time fascinations with early Pink Floyd-inspired psychedelia, science fiction, and long instrumental interludes, Embryonic often sounds like the soundtrack for a futuristic space movie. This, perhaps, might be due to their recent experience scoring their own such movie, Christmas on Mars.


To be sure, Embryonic often sounds more like early ‘70s Miles Davis than the product of a band that cut its teeth on punk rock—and that’s certainly a compliment. From the first track to the last, the Lips test the boundaries of what it means to write a song. Album opener “Convinced of the Hex”, for example, technically follows a verse/chorus structure, but the music is so ambient and the vocals so understated that it feels more like a mood piece than a rock song, effectively demoting the electric guitar’s role to mere shards of sound while showcasing retro synthesizers and vibes.


This sets the tone for the rest of the album, which follows a similar rock-meets-jazz-meets-musical score-vibe. “See the Leaves” is a mediation on death and regeneration, taking a common Lips theme and channeling it through the schizophrenic bombast of, say, Radiohead’s “The National Anthem”, beginning with insistent propulsion and devolving into eventual collapse. “The Ego’s Last Stand” is, at first, held together by an ominous and repetitive bass riff before giving way to Kliph Scurlock’s manic, genius drumming. And “Worm Mountain” channels the dark uneasiness of Led Zeppelin’s “No Quarter” to equally eerie effect.


Embryonic does, of course, suffer from the endemic shortcomings and annoyances of double albums. Some of the songs, for example, seem like exercises in self-indulgence rather than anything approaching fully formed tracks. “I Can Be a Frog”, for example, consists of lyrics such as “I can be a frog / I can be a bat / I can be a bear / Or I can be a cat” that alternate with a woman making the sound of the respective animal. And then there’s “The Impulse”, an artistic abortion of a song that is so horrendous (is that that voice distortion thing that that T-Pain dude uses?) it’s not even worth discussing.


These sins would be unforgiveable on a single LP, a sign that a band could not fill an entire album without resorting to filler. But creative self-indulgence, however annoying, has become the defining aspect of the double album throughout the decades—a chance to hear a band break out of the artistic confines that are the unintended consequence of success. Taken, then, in the context of a unified work that unfolds over the course of eighteen tracks, even “I Can Be a Frog” and “The Impulse” have their part to play in showing what sounds a band explores when not boxed in by a conventional album length.


And that’s exactly why Embryonic is a fascinating listen: like other notable double LPs from rock history, it’s a candid look at the creative whimsies of a band that has left an indelible mark on music. It’s definitely not something you will listen to every day, but on those days when you feel the need to listen to something truly engaging, Embryonic will make its way into your rotation. Sporadically brilliant, occasionally tedious, and always challenging, it’s proof that the Fearless Freaks are back.

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Michael Franco is a Professor of English at Oklahoma City Community College, where he teaches composition and humanities. An alumnus of his workplace, he also attended the University of Central Oklahoma, earning both a B.A. and M.A. in English. Franco has been writing for PopMatters since 2004 and has also served as an Associate Editor since 2007. He considers himself lucky to be able to experience what he teaches, writing and the humanities, firsthand through his work at PopMatters, and his experiences as a writer help him teach his students to become better writers themselves.


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