Wednesday, November 4, 2020

Album Review: The Flaming Lips - American Head

The Flaming Lips
American Head
**1/2 out of *****

The Flaming Lips creative and commercial peak arrived at the turn of the millennium as The Soft Bulletin and Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots moved them from small time oddball acid freaks into big time acid freaks with heart and surprising depth. Since then the band have followed their own path, mixing with pop stars, covering classic artists and devoting full albums to straight up drugs. Now the band mixes those exact inspirations on a (very loose) concept album titled American Head with mixed results.

Addressing the concept of the album; main Lip Wayne Coyne found out that Tom Petty had a brief stay over in Tulsa, Oklahoma with Mudcrutch before success in L.A. This short stay was right around the time Coyne's older brother's crew were dealing acid in town and American Head imagines an alternate history where Petty and crew get stuck in the dark side of Tulsa, never hitting it big and instead decide to write this drug influenced homesick album.

While that is a neat idea, you don't need to know any of it since, Petty, Tulsa or anything much outside of drugs and dying is directly addressed on the album, whose weakest parts are Coyne's lyrics and singing. Coyne does spaced out well and can do warm and sweet well, but throughout American Head he is a step off when trying either or mixing the two; musically there are dramatic swells yet the "story" and bizarre concept holds little to no weight. 

However, that doesn't take away from the grandiose of the music. The players (Coyne, Michael Ivins, Steven Drozd, Derek Brown, Jake Ingalls, Matt Duckworth, Nicholas Ley) craft sonic pastures that vibrate with pulsing colors and flare while remaining crafted for pop appeal. The bands obsessive love of Pink Floyd and The Beatles combine to shape wide swaths of scattered sound into easily digestible songs, unfortunately there isn't a turn a phrase, lyric or singing style that elevates any of the creations into must hear status. 

Opener "Will You Return When You Come Down" signals to fans the band is back on track in their classic style, overloading the song with layers of sounds and lyrics about persevering when all your friends die before drifting into even more maximum output on "Watching The Lightbugs Glow" and "Flowers of Neptune 6" both of which feature gorgeous backing vocals from Kacey Musgraves as the tracks all bleed into each other. 

The huge psychedelic swirling sounds and digital bleeps carry the day on "Dinosaurs on the Mountain" whose lyrics only get worse after the title while "At The Movies on Quaaludes" injects gritty fuzz guitar tones, pleasant piano and more great backing vocals. After direct Floyd ("Mother I've Taken LSD") and Beatles (Mother Please Don't Be Sad") homages, the low end takes over for a rhythmic vibe propelled instrumental "When We Die When We Are High" which could roll on forever.     

"Assassins of Youth" is the best full effort of the bunch here with acoustic strumming multiple tonal shifts and a huge cinematic journey driven by a mega beat. Musgraves comes back to duet with Coyne for "God and the Policeman" before album closer "My Religion Is You" softly wraps up the record. 

The current seven piece lineup of the band is the most musically expressive of the Lips long and varied career, injecting glorious sounds into almost every song. The album floats beautifully along as majestic background acid trip music as Coyne experiments with different vocal effects masking his rote lyrics; for someone so "Out There" things are pretty bland and never go much deeper than his "witty" titles, perhaps his best moments are long behind him. 

It is as if Coyne was scripting a movie through his lyrics, but rather than a whacked out indie film based on his intriguing concept he edited it down to generic made for TV special, while the band were musically going for the Academy Award for Best Song on each outing. American Head never fully gels around what could have been an interesting idea.                  
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