Robot Wars

Wayne Coyne: Now available in greenface!

Wayne Coyne: Now available in greenface!

It's hard to adequately appreciate those accomplishments that immediately follow other, greater achievements. The shadows are too long, the dust too thick, our perspectives too skewed.

Take, for instance, the fifth inning of the third game of the Yankees-Cubs 1932 World Series. Babe Ruth strode to the plate. He took four pitches, pointed to the centerfield bleachers, and deposited the next ball in the selfsame seats. Insulted by the Babe's display, the home fans littered Wrigley Field with the giant dill pickles then sold at the park's concession stands. In their fury, few in attendance saw that the following hitter, Lou Gehrig, walloped a home run, too. Now nobody remembers Gehrig's blast.

Or consider when, a decade after Ruth's feat and fresh off a 1941 flick called Citizen Kane, Orson Welles made The Magnificent Ambersons. After a single preview screening yielded poor marks from the test audience, the studio re-cut the film and released it, eviscerated, over the director's objections. Welles would later call Ambersons his best picture, though it was seen in its intended form by only maybe a few hundred people and is all but forgotten today.

The new Flaming Lips record, Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots (Warner Bros.), faces a similarly steep mountain of expectation. The band's last disc, 1999's The Soft Bulletin, was a brilliant synthesis of head Lip Wayne Coyne's multiple personalities: the absurdist who scored a wild-card hit with "She Don't Use Jelly"; the Rube Goldberg of rock, who once conducted a symphony of car cassette decks playing in a parking garage; the psychedelic astronaut who trips on peace and love, man. And every one of Coyne's flights of fancy was brought to pulsing, giggling, glowing life by multi-instrumentalist and mind-expanding arranger Steven Drozd, who flashed equal chops as a composer of ork-rock suites and a purveyor of pure pop confection. Maybe most important, The Soft Bulletin proved to a nation of Thom Yorke-addled millions that art rock could have a heart, a soul, and, not least, a sense of humor.

Yoshimi continues in the same vein, but with more slight missteps than masterstrokes. It bursts from the gate with "Fight Test," an infectious tune that cops its chord progression from Cat Stevens and that a less scrupulous hype machine might pimp as a post-9/11 battle cry: "Oh, to fight is to defend/If it's not now then tell me when/You would stand up and be a man," Wayne warbles. Yet "One More Robot/Sympathy 3000-21" cuts the initial momentum; Grandaddy executed the same concept with more skill in the woozy "Jed the Humanoid."

The two-part title track is another mixed bag. "Pt. 1" should be covered by Cibo Matto and blasted from the boom box of every kick-box-aerobics instructor in the land. Over a campfire sing-along strum and the blip and sputter of subtle electronics, Coyne introduces our hero: "Her name is Yoshimi/She's a black belt in karate/Working for the city/She has to discipline her body." But the caterwauling instrumental "Pt. 2," meant to represent the sound of battle between Yoshimi and the android, doesn't hold up under repeated listens.

These cuts cohere to a relatively linear plot: Alien robots attack Earth, meet their match in a charming yet tough chick, and commit suicide rather than harm her. But in notes that accompanied promo copies of the disc, Coyne claims that Yoshimi is no concept album. If you believe that, you're doing Coyne a favor, because the plot breaks down about halfway along.

It's about this same time that the music gets muddled, too. Situated smack in the disc's midsection, "Ego Tripping at the Gates of Hell" and "Are You a Hypnotist??" are a back-to-back buzzkill: They ramble along pleasantly, but they never really arrive anywhere in particular. The next several cuts pick up the pace, but they're overstuffed with instruments and effects. Birds twitter over programmed beats. Synth bass notes echo under Coyne's falsetto. Guitar riffs pierce swollen string sections. Bells chime, keys bounce atop electronic squiggles, and another dozen unnamable noises poke through the melodies. It's all dizzying and fun and very cool--until you realize the songs themselves have drowned.

Of course, the band's true believers would find value in, say, Wayne Coyne Fartin' to the Oldies, and consider it good news that the only thing more cluttered than Yoshimi is Coyne's calendar. On that front, the immediate forecast calls for the release of Finally the Punk Rockers Are Taking Acid, a triple-disc box compiling the first three Lips albums and a host of bonus tracks (due September 17). The double-disc The Day They Shot a Hole in the Jesus Egg, which pairs the band's 1990 album In a Priest Driven Ambulance with still more bonus material, is slated to follow on October 11. Also this fall, the Lips will tour as Beck's backing band, and by December of next year, you'll likely be able to see their gonzo sci-fi movie, Christmas on Mars (co-starring Coyne, in greenface).

Lips naysayers, meanwhile, are advised to limber up their throwing arms and ready their jumbo dills.