The Flaming Lips: The Soft Bulletin

The Flaming Lips
The Soft Bulletin
Warner Bros.

FOR 15 YEARS now, Oklahoma City's Flaming Lips have cultivated a garden all their own. Cross-pollinating Syd Barrett's Pink Floyd, Love, and the psychedelic Beatles with a kind of postpunk, small-town isolationism, they're the missing link between Southwestern contemporaries the Meat Puppets and today's Elephant 6 bands. Of course, when their footnote in rock history is written, it could read something like that, or it could mention their complicity in one of '90s rock's lowest points: Performing the fluke hit "She Don't Use Jelly" at the Peach Pit on Beverly Hills 90210. (And inspiring Ian Ziering's überblond, Steve Sanders: "I don't usually like alternative, but those guys rocked the house!") The irony, of course, was that "She Don't Use Jelly" was the weakest moment on their best record, 1993's Transmissions from the Satellite Heart.

Thankfully, after their 15 minutes came and went, the band took their Warner Bros. contract and hightailed it back down the same path of willful obscurity from which they came. In 1995 they put out another fine astral-pop record, Clouds Taste Metallic, and proceeded to get even wiggier, composing live symphonies for car tape decks and a collection of four CDs all meant to be played at the same time.

The Soft Bulletin is a return to relative normalcy, and the title is apt: This missive is the mellowest thing they've ever concocted, with the big drums toned down a bit and the distorted guitars sharing room with a smoother bed of bass and piano. The stoner gem "I stood up and I said, 'Yeah'" is a pretty typical lyric, but perhaps this line from "The Spiderbite Song" gets a little closer to the band's true charm: "Love is the greatest thing our heart can know." That syrupy sentiment might be unbearable in most hands, but when sung with a true-believer quaver by head Lip Wayne Coyne--a direct descendent of Moe Tucker and Neil Young--it seems kind of, er, sweet.

The rest of The Soft Bulletin is similarly endearing: It's spacy, dopey, and childlike but with an undercurrent of '70s schmaltz that's new to the Lips' music. At points it sounds like the soundtrack to an acid-trip episode of Scooby Doo, and "Race for the Prize" suggests a lost theme song to that high school biology class staple, The Race for the Double Helix. Yet the moments that matter are so personal and idiosyncratic they almost defy commentary.

On "Buggin'," they deftly deploy Big Star harmonies in the service of unanswerable lines such as, "Does love buzz because that's what it does?" This is a band that contemplates things that are "too heavy for Superman," that has sudden epiphanies while putting away the groceries, that writes a song called "Feeling Yourself Disintegrate," which repeats the title phrase for three minutes straight. Put plainly, this is the most convincing hippie band of the '90s.

 
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