Friday, October 9, 2009

Strange harmony of contrasts - The Flaming Lips

When Marty W, with the best of intentions, suggested I listen to, without necessarily buying, The Flaming Lips' 2002 album, Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, because I might find it interesting how they make such musical use of sound and noise, it was pretty well an inevitability that something of this interesting and very clever American band would soon be added to my collection and so, within 24 hours, both this and Clouds Taste Metallic had put another little dent in my even littler bank balance.

And he was right - this music really does do some interesting things with the many bits and pieces that it brings together. There's an irresistable brightness in the music, mixed with innovative “out there” uses of noise and sound, producing an unusual and creative marriage of the daring and the accessible.

The songs on this album show us how unconventional uses of electronic music don’t have to be alienating – like the way whirring, sliding noises give “Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots Pt 1” its sense of warmth and hope even in a mechanical, programmed world that has lost the capacity for passion; or the way the synthetic swaying electronic sounds of “All We Have Is Now”, cold and clinical anywhere else, here manage to give the music its heartfelt, and sometimes heartbroken, humanity.

Listen, too, to the purely instrumental “Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots Pt 2”, and the way it throws screeches and screams into the mix with catchy bass riffs and drum beats and tolling bell sounds to create a new sort of pop sound that is as pleasantly surprising as one of those recipes where, when you read the ingredients, you can’t possibly believe they would combine into something that could ever taste good: but they do, and it does.

“In the Morning of the Magicians” is a great example of the way this album uses old, trusted approaches to harmony and phrasing to give the music its sense of familiarity, even against the weird noises that bubble and bang in the background.

There are some wonderfully subtle moments here, too – like the way the gentle semi-tone descent of the melody line in “It’s Summertime (Throbbing Orange Pallbearers)” take your heart down a notch or two as you hear a tale of sadness amidst a world of sunshine and birdsong.

It’s the way all these diverse elements – and always so many of them – are brought together to make something that sounds so unified and intricately interwoven that makes this album so unique. It’s something you’d be happy to bop away to on the dance floor, or it’s something you might find as a set piece in a course where you’re learning the intricacies of musical structure.

Listen, for example, to “Do you Realize??” and see if, even as you revel in the fragile beauty of its melodies, you can keep track of everything that’s going on there – the layers of music, the mix of emotions, the rhythms and beats that cross and overlap each other.

To borrow a line from an aria near the beginning of Puccini's Tosca, this album produces a "strange harmony of contrasts" and, while the opera ends up with everyone stabbed, shot or jumping to their death from a castle roof, Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots finishes with “Approaching Pavonis Mons by Balloon (Utopian Planitia)”, a purely instrumental track where The Flaming Lips' now trademark unsual mix of sound takes us, gliding, off into another place which, thanks to the way those sounds have nestled their way into us so easily, feels almost like coming home.

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