FOR a moment back there, it looked like The Flaming Lips were poised to become one of the biggest bands on the planet – and beyond, if their space-obsessed lead singer Wayne Coyne had really pushed for lift-off. After 20 years as a strictly cult concern, the group had crossed over with celestial pop numbers such as Do You Realize? – now the official state rock song of their native Oklahoma – and their feelgood shows sent festival crowds into a state of communal euphoria.
The Flaming Lips: The Flaming Lips and Heady Fwends
Bella Union, £13.99
But instead of courting mass appeal, they gave the big balloons to Coldplay, wished them well in their conquering of the world’s stadiums and went back to being an experimental pop band with their cosmic 2009 album Embryonic, gonzo sci-fi film Christmas On Mars and loony tunes remake of Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon starring Peaches and Henry Rollins.
Maybe Coyne was afraid of the big time, or maybe he just isn’t interested in all the strategic timing and marketing waffle that goes along with the release of a major album, preferring to invest his energies in goofy, one-off projects such as recording a song that lasts for 24 hours, then releasing it as a memory stick embedded in a human skull. True fact, as they say.
The Flaming Lips and Heady Fwends is not quite as out there, although it was originally released on limited edition vinyl for Record Store Day, apparently with the blood of some of the contributors (which Coyne had been keeping in his fridge) pressed into the vinyl. Beat that, Jack White. Demand – for the music, rather than the blood, one supposes – was so high that it has now been given a full release.
The concept is simple by Lips standards: invite a cross section of collaborators to jam on a series of far-out band duets. The cast list includes blissed-out kindred spirits Bon Iver and Tame Impala, veteran agitators Nick Cave and Yoko Ono and avant-garde noiseniks Lightning Bolt and Prefuse 73.
Lightning Bolt do their usual rocket-launcher imitation in the middle of I’m Working At NASA, a Morricone-influenced, acid country noir, which pans out like a shambolic, lo-fi Space Oddity, while Prefuse 73 guest on the headlong Krautrock wig-out of The Supermoon Made Me Want To Pee – don’t you hate it when that happens? Yoko Ono keeps it Kraut, barking out clipped commands over the percussive Can-influenced Do It!
And then there’s Ke$ha, the trashy pop wannabe who, true to form, gatecrashed this party because she, like, totally digs the Lips. In doing so, she has delivered the highlight of her undistinguished career to date with a bratty valley girl guest vocal on 2012, an energised robo-punk rendering of The Stooges’ 1969 which also features Biz Markie, the “clown prince of hip-hop”, in there somewhere.
After this invigorating shakedown comes the unsettling ambient psych of Ashes In The Air, a spooky rendition of Bon Iver’s stately melancholy. In space, no one can hear you lose your mind.Perversely, the effect is quite soothing.
Despite its droll title, the following plangent pastoral Helping The Retarded To Find God, featuring Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeros, is one of the most dignified, straight-shooting songs here. Australian psychedelic noodlers Tame Impala are in their stoner pop element on Children Of The Moon, though they’re probably just happy that someone else can see the pink elephants too.
The wonderful Jim James of My Morning Jacket is another fellow head who sounds right at home on the clamorous, fuzzy, eccentric epic That Ain’t My Trip. This leads nicely into Nick Cave’s contribution, You, Man? Human??? If you thought Cave was having fun in Grinderman, that’s nothing to the ball he has with tolling chime bars and sinister shakers on this heavy psych blues. “You can touch me if you want,” he solicits, “it’s obligatory, it’s allowed.”
Not all of Coyne’s collaborators were such easy conquests. The reluctant Erykah Badu was eventually prevailed upon to interpret Ewan MacColl’s classic First Time Ever I Saw Your Face. Her subsequent public fall-out with Coyne over the accompanying video shouldn’t overshadow the elegantly trippy ten-minute result. Once Coyne is through with the echo effects, Badu sounds utterly transported by her love.
The album comes back down to Earth with the closing Tasered and Maced, featuring a first-hand account of police brutality from Ghostland Observatory member Aaron Behrens, which makes for rather sober listening in the light of the Ian Tomlinson manslaughter case.
Even the more uneventful, indulgent numbers deserve their place in the company. After all, the entire enterprise is unashamedly indulgent and all the better for it. Flaming Lips and Heady Fwends probably won’t attract any new followers to their punk music of the spheres but Coyne and cohorts have more important work to do than pandering to the masses.
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