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Music Review: The Flaming Lips – Embryonic

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The stereotype goes (at least in my born-and-raised-in-New England head) that the weird people live on the coasts of the United States, with the 'normal' people bunched up in the middle. Exceptions are granted for Austin, Texas, New Orleans, and (maybe) Taos, New Mexico. So you live in Kansas, you're 'normal.' Iowa? Normal. Nebraska? Normal! Oklahoma? Uh, okay… wait a minute.

The Flaming Lips (from Norman, Oklahoma) totally blew my ideas of midwestern normalcy out the window. My first experience with them was after the release of The Soft Bulletin, a record that I liked but that didn't seem all that odd to me. But then Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots and At War With The Mystics pretty much set up a new prog/pop/weirdo landscape, as if the unknown love children of Robert Fripp and Kate Bush just appeared on the scene out of nowhere…

from Norman… freaking… Oklmahoma.

Of course, I'm not from the midwest and undoubtedly have this "no weirdo" thing wrong. In fact, I had this very same conversation once with a coworker who was from the midwest and his comment was that the region tends to produce people who are either "extremely normal" or "extremely odd." Imagine that.

Maybe, through a special phenomenon of cultural cross-currents, the intersection of weird and normal produces aesthetic bits that defy our expectations and stereotypes. So maybe a 'normal' person from Oklahoma isn't a NASCAR-lovin', Toby Keith-listening guy who works at the rail yard for an agribusiness concern. No, 'normal' is a guy with parents who love reading experimental poetry while listening to John Cage.

Well, all definitions aside, me and my ears are here to tell you that Embryonic is one of the odder records you're likely to hear coming out of the mainstream this year. Also, one of the most beautiful. Because of the unique nature of this recording's atmosphere, my investigations skipped the song-by-song thing in favor of the search for a sonic theme. After multiple listening sessions, I have found it: Itchy.

Yes, you read that right. Itchy. I know, it's difficult to attach that word to sound. Still, this album can make a person uncomfortable. It overflows with contrasting textures: with distorted basslines complemented by ringing chords from the keyboard and punctuated by synthesizer burps. Tunes like "See The Leaves" (my favorite track, even if it does scare me a little) and "Aquarius Sabotage" traffic in ominous bass rumbles and squeaky freakouts a la electric Miles. There are moments of sheer power that give way to corridors of shining, delicate beauty. There are animal noises both real and imagined. There are pronouncements from mathematicians (Thorsten Wörmann) and rock stars (Karen O just slays me).

Kindred spirits to this are the soundtrack to Darren Aronofsky's film Pi, plus Ummagumma and Meddle-era Pink Floyd. The music is that varied, that erudite…

…and that itchy.

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About Mark Saleski

  • Agreed, great album even if there are a couple forgettable tracks.

    Like any good itch, there is a certain pleasure in scratching it!

  • a good sign for me is that i hear new things every time i listen.