Music

The Flaming Lips: The Flaming Lips and Heady Fwends

Bon Iver sings about robot dogs. Nick Cave does a wicked Tom Waits impression. Erykah Badu covers Roberta Flack... in space. Even with its flaws, it's hard to think of a more memorable disc released this year than Heady Fwends.


The Flaming Lips

The Flaming Lips and Heady Fwends

Label: Warner Bros.
US Release Date: 2012-04-21
UK Release Date: Import
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"I wouldn’t say we know a lot about music, but we know a lot about the way our audience listens to music, because they’re like us. So you know, when we want music to go on for an hour, we present it you as something you can handle for an hour. Because it’s hypnotic, and it’s not punishing, and it’s not disorienting, and it doesn’t require your full attention."

-- Wayne Coyne to PopMatters, 20 January 2012

"'Nowadays we don’t really need [the label] to give us money,' Coyne says. 'We just can say, 'We know how this shit works, and we are going to move ahead on this.' When we made that Neon Indian record that, I believe it was March [2011] when that came out, we recorded it and in six days actually had a record in our hands. When I asked [Warner Brothers] how long it would take, they were like, 'Well, if you can get the music to us, we can get you maybe a demo, a master that you can listen to in six weeks,' and I can’t take six weeks. I just started to say, 'Well, I’m going to find somebody who can help me do it quicker and better and not so much bureaucracy.' And I didn’t know if it would be three weeks or if it would be four weeks. I tried to get it overnight. And so I found places that can do what we want them to do quicker. And they wanted that."

-- Wayne Coyne to PopMatters, 27 January 2012

"'cos I want my ass ... shit. One more time?"

-- Ke$ha, "2012 (You Must Be Upgraded)"

It's kind of great to hear the Flaming Lips truly not give a damn anymore.

Back in the late '90s, these Oklahoma-bred psych-rockers slowly built up an acid-drenched following with their absolutely oddball, out-there (yet-fully realized) psych-rock sound, releasing albums filled with in-joke weirdness and drug-addled insanity to a slowly swelling cult audience. Yet over time, Wayne Coyne's cryptic tales began finding their heart, and by the time 1995's Clouds Taste Metallic came out, fans knew that something was changing deep inside the band: their songs were getting warmer and sweeter, all without having to sacrifice their love of the bizarre. Then, of course, we had that glorious one-two punch of The Soft Bulletin (1999) and the awe-inspiring Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots (2002), and it was pretty much settled: the Flaming Lips had turned into one of the greatest bands working today.

Thank goodness they fucked up after that. Had they not, we may never have had the ramshackle joys of The Flaming Lips and Heady Fwends.

You see, after releasing two masterpieces in a row, even Coyne was wise enough to know that the impossibly high expectations couldn't be topped again. The lackluster At War with the Mystics came out in 2006, and while it wasn't an out-and-out failure by any means, it still traded in the band's knack for honest emotional heft for wry (and dated) pop-culture references, which -- while disappointing at its core -- managed to free the band up to do whatever they wanted after the fact. Reveling in this newfound freedom, the band put out a double-disc effort in 2009 called Embryonic that complete abandoned what had become the "traditional" Flaming Lips sound, taking all of the scrappy details of their early days (in-the-red drum breaks, armies of budget-brand keyboards, vocals drenched in blown-speaker fuzz) and marrying it to their modern-day songwriting chops, resulting in an album that was darker, grittier, and weirder than anything they did in the past decade. Then came their star-packed Dark Side of the Moon remake. Then a six-hour song contained inside a Gummi skull. Then a 24-hour song contained in an actual human skull. Then a bunch of oddball collaboration EPs from the likes of Neon Indian and Prefuse 73. And now, we are treated to The Flaming Lips and Heady Fwends.

Essentially a "best of" of the band's recent gamut of collaborations, Heady Fwends retains the fantastically beat-up textures of that made Embryonic so sonically fascinating, but while that album sometimes bordered on the serious, Heady Fwends is off-the-cuff fun. The opening salvo "2012 (You Must Be Upgraded)" mixes Timbaland-like vocal swoons, a shuffling handclap beat, and a single clipped guitar strum played ad infinitum to create what is essentially the flip-side to Prince's "1999": the world is ending, so let's get high. "So with the world ablaze / I'm in an acid haze" Ke$ha sings in her signature style (unabashed and wholly believable) before we're treated to a glorious synth breakdown and an blink-and-you'll-miss-it Biz Markie cameo. Is it nuts? Absolutely. Is it worthwhile? Even moreso.

While the band's list of collaborators is a virtual Who's Who of people making important music today, the album's strength comes not from the randomness of this hookups but instead just how uninhibited said partners in crime feel around Coyne, drummer Steven Drozd, and bassist Michael Ivins. Just listen to the wild Nick Cave joint "You, Man? Human???", where Cave comes on to you like a sexy carnival barker over a fuzzed-out bassline that is occasionally punctuated by bright, sparkling harps. If you wind up having flashbacks to Tom Waits' "Step Right Up" in both tone and spirit (Cave's opening: "Hey everybody, I'm doin' alright! / I'm drivin' around in the middle of the night / On a silver cloud / You can touch me if you want / It's obligatory! / It's allowed!"), then don't fret: you're not alone.

Heady Fwends ultimately works because unlike their recent full-lengths, there is no grand statement or deep meaning to be found underneath it all: each song works on its own beautifully twisted internal logic. While the absolutely gorgeous closer "I Don't Want You to Die" blatantly quotes the first three lines of John Lennon's "Imagine" within its first 60 seconds, the song slowly morphs from post-modern Beatles homage to a beautiful meditation on death that piles on wheezing robot voices, a Chris Martin swingby, and lonely piano chords to craft one of the most undeniably pretty songs the band has released since "Do You Realize??". Same goes for the dark, surprisingly understated Neon Indian feature "Is David Bowie Dying?", which very much sounds like the shadow inverse of Yoshimi, all echoed guitar chords and nighttime synths, accessible yet cryptic to the core (very much like its titular hero).

Yet as the album goes on, it becomes clear that there are very much two types of collaborations that populate this disc: ones that are truly, honestly collaborative and one-offs that assuredly sound like one-offs. Of these misfires, perhaps the most egregious is "Do It!", wherein Yoko Ono stops by to shout the phrase "Do it!" over an undercooked melody for over three minutes -- and that's it. Conversely, the hard psych of "The Supermoon Made Me Want to Pee [ft. Prefuse 73]" starts out at full throttle -- sounding like a lost 60s psych-rock attack song that was shoved through a trash compactor and then fired straight up into the sky -- but the track ultimately turns out to be all climax and no buildup, the key-drenched cool down proving to be just about the only redeemable aspect of such a fruited pairing. Edward Sharpe's big number, meanwhile, is hindered by frontman Alex Ebert's own barely-there, highly-disinterested vocal phrasing, turning what could have been an above-average cut into a relatively boring slog, the acoustic guitars slowly plugging away without much sense of purpose. Worst of all, there's Erykah Badu's epic 10-minute sci-fi riff on the Roberta Flack standard "The First Time I Ever Saw Your Face", where her powerful voice is soaked in so many echo effects that the disjointed cool that everyone was going for instead comes off as distant and detached, proving once again that as much as the band wants to take things "out there", there are still limits as to how far you can truly go out while still maintaining any sort of relatable gravitas.

Fortunately, even these minor faults can't sink the deliciously gonzo marvel that is Heady Fwends as a whole. The fantastic Lightning Bolt square-off "I'm Working at NASA on Acid" features one radically different surprise after another, just as how the Lips' tune with up-and-comer New Fumes, "Girl, You're So Weird", slowly changes from minimal synth lament to mountainous siren-party -- and then back just as quickly. Additionally, it's hard not to love any album that features a haunting Bon Iver collaboration that contains the lyrics "We thought we were so smart / We thought we could outrun them / But they had robot dogs".

When you break it all down, the Flaming Lips seemed to have stopped giving a damn, and it's a wonderful thing to behold. They aren't interested in making hits, nor do they even seem to care much about recapturing the sound of their turn-of-the-millennium glory days. Instead, they just want to have fun, calling up their friends and their fascinations, collecting blood samples from them to pour into limited edition vinyl releases, and then going about making some weird-ass music together. It works more often then it doesn't, but when digested as a whole, it's hard to think of an album released this year that is as wall-to-wall memorable as The Flaming Lips and Heady Fwends, flaws and all.

7

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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Music

The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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