And so it came to pass that upon a Sunday night in the village of Waldo, seven travelers gathered to suck deep on the hookah of life and listen to the bards spin tales. The tales were of dying and being reborn, of beasts on the Earth and signs in the sky. The bards were four mystical djinn from the deserts of Oklahoma, known to mortal man as the Flaming Lips.
Their music, conveyed via a magical, publicist-sanctioned, watermarked disc that would only work on CD players built prior to anno Domini 2002, was played by the travelers in a small jambox — hardly the proper receptacle for the magic of the djinn. But soon after the music began, the travelers forgot about its faults, closing their eyes and nodding their heads to the whirling, crashing rhythms and spacious, unfolding rock jams.
The travelers: Mike Walker, trombonist for Olympic Size and the Sex Police; Walker's girlfriend and Pitch clubs editor Berry Anderson; Pitch calendar editor and Buckle Bunny columnist Crystal K. Wiebe; Record Machine label owner Nathan Reusch; sound designer Randy Skach; and Mike's neighbor, Dustin.
The music: Embryonic, the Flaming Lips' 13th proper album, released October 13.
Unlike previous releases, such as 2006's At War With the Mystics or 2002's Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, this album contains little for the pop lover to grasp onto. More akin to the noise experimentation of Zaireeka and with more than a few traces of the Lips' early psychedelia, Embryonic finds the band mostly improvising its way into songs. Taking a cue from Bitches Brew-era Miles Davis, multi-instrumentalists Wayne Coyne, Steven Drozd, Michael Ivins and drummer Kliph Scurlock recorded prolonged jam sessions and edited parts into whole songs in post-production.
Though three or four of the album's 18 tracks work as more or less structured stand-alone cuts (such as the glorious and spooky "Silver Trembling Hands" or the playful "I Can Be a Frog," featuring animal noises from Karen O.), the bulk of the material is repetitive, ebbing-and-flowing instrumental grooves that call to mind Pink Floyd hashing out head trips like "One of These Days" and "Sheep."
Embryonic is a strange album for a listening party. And devoting a Sunday night to playing it nearly twice through — its 70 minutes go by fast — is one of the best things I've done in a while.
Scurlock's house in Lawrence would have been a natural party spot, but the drummer was tired from months of recording. Plus, he didn't want his presence at the listening session to affect anyone's judgment. (Visit the Wayward Blog for a bonus interview with Kliph.)
Going into the listening sesh, our group's affection for the Flaming Lips as a band was, on a scale of 1 to 10, on average, around 5.6, with me on the high end at 8 and coldhearted Wiebe on the low end at 1. (WTF, right!?) As Embryonic clattered to a close, those of us with higher expectations were left wanting more, while those who had no stakes going in got a pleasant, low-level buzz. In fact, it was thanks to the non-fans' appreciation of the album that our collective love-for-the-Lips rating went up to 6.2. (WTF, right!?)
The chaotic, jammy character of the album would prove difficult for listeners with more melodic tastes, though no one actively disliked the album, not even Wiebe, who dug the metallic whomp of "See the Leaves" and the chorus-vocal freakout of "Worm Mountain" featuring the band MGMT.
Dustin, who was perhaps the least familiar with the Lips, said he was intrigued enough to want to see the band live. Walker, who had the most avant leanings of the group, was sold on the album itself.
Reusch missed the melodies. I asked whether, if Embryonic had been recorded by an unsigned indie band, he would sign that band to his label based on that album. He said no.
On the question of jam: "It was way cooler than the Dave Matthews Band," Anderson said, jokingly describing the Lips as a "higher-echelon jam band."
As both a fan of weird '70s prog and an unapologetic Yoshimi-head, I like the album, though I wish there were more vocal lines and interesting chord changes throughout and less reliance on simple, distorted bass lines — more lush sky-openers like "Silver Trembling Hands," in other words.
One thing that most everyone agreed on was that Embryonic is an odd bet for a label as big as Warner Bros. (the Lips' home since 1992). But, then again, big labels no longer expect to make money off CD sales. Perhaps the most interesting marketing concept behind Embryonic is not the adventurous, double-album approach or the furry box that the limited-edition, CD/DVD-plus-lithograph package comes in but the fact that the album streamed exclusively on The Colbert Report's Web site in September.
But for seven late-20s and early-30s Midwesterners on a Sunday night, these not-about-the-music concerns were miles away. Embryonic may not come close to having the longevity of the group's 1999 masterpiece, The Soft Bulletin, but for a group listening session, the album stood up almost unexpectedly well — even on a crappy jambox. That, in itself, is a kind of magic.