Sound Choices: Flaming Lips, “Embryonic

Alex Schaaf

When I first heard that the Flaming Lips were planning a double album full of sonic freak-outs and sound experiments, I was a little nervous. I love the freaky side of the Lips as much as the next guy, but I’ve always thought that Wayne Coyne and company did their best work when they combined their weird, spacey freak music with more conventional pop structures, resulting in such gems as “Race for the Prize” and “Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, Pt. 1.”
After my first listen to “Embryonic,” their new album, which takes up over 72 minutes, I thought that I was right to fear this new development. Where are the sing-along choruses? The fake orchestras? The songs made to sound like a confetti gun gone mad?
After each subsequent listen, however, I’ve gotten more and more excited by “Embryonic,” and now I can safely say that I’m a big fan. This album easily tops 2006’s “At War with the Mystics,” which tried a little too hard to appeal to a mainstream audience, and I believe it is close in quality to my previously favorite Lips albums, “Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots” and “The Soft Bulletin.”
First of all, let’s just get this out of the way: This album is weird. The sprawling work goes from fuzz freak-outs to animal sounds to massive walls of noise like it’s no big deal. There are a couple songs that veer closer to the traditional Lips songs, such as “If,” which features Coyne singing, “People are evil, it’s true. But on the other side, they can be gentle, too, if they decide.”
“Embryonic” is one of the loudest albums the Lips have produced, both in instrumentation and in the way the album was mastered. But where this was annoying before – “At War with the Mystics” – the loudness is now a crucial part of the texture. Songs such as “The Sparrow Looks Up At the Machine,” “Aquarius Sabotage” and “Worm Mountain” – which features guest artists MGMT – owe much of their existence to the distortion pedal, as huge waves of fuzz roll over the listener.
There is also a very loose and unrehearsed quality to the album, something that makes it stand apart from the last three albums. Studio chatter and throat-clearing is all over the place, and many of the tracks have a loose, improvised feel to them. It’s quite refreshing to hear this kind of spontaneity out of the usually heavily arranged group.
Adding to the already-strange collection of songs, Karen O of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs makes an appearance on “I Can Be A Frog,” submitting animal growls and chirps over the phone, turning what could have been one of Coyne’s childish, nonsensical songs into a much more intriguing track.
Overall I will say that this album will stand the test of time as one of the Lips’ best. Even if you don’t necessarily like it, you have to applaud the band for giving us something unexpected, taking a left turn when going straight would have been perfectly acceptable. To exist as a band for over 20 years, releasing 12 albums along the way, and to still have this level of unpredictability, is something to be admired.