The Soft Bulletin
Too bad all bands don't spend as much time thinking about what they do as the Flaming Lips. You, Beavis and Butt-head, probably know them from the band's 1993 novelty hit, "She Don't Use Jelly," but there is more to the Oklahoma-based group than rhyming words with "Vaseline." Since forming in 1983, the band has developed a knack for expanding songs with sonic experimentation, which it does without losing its sense of melody. This has made the Lips an important alternative rock monolith. Last year's Zaireeka was a four-CD set that was designed to be played simultaneously. That project was inspired by head Lip Wayne Coyne and his experimentation with parking lot orchestras in which cassettes were given to 50 people to play in their car stereos at the same time. Coyne conducted the masses with a bullhorn. With those projects the Lips wanted to get people back into the social aspect of music. To get the four CDs to play at once took four people and four stereos. Some friends would have to help out.
That sort of contemplation and experimentation drives the Flaming Lips' ninth record, The Soft Bulletin. The Lips have carved out a genre of pop psychedelia and sonic riskiness all to itself, and the band considers the effect this music has on audiences. The trademark weirdness is here, though there are few psycho-jam moments. (Most songs clock in around the four-minute mark.) Those moments have peppered the group's records from the beginning. But it's not just about making crazy, innovative sounds anymore. Well-crafted songs are the means to letting the band probe different areas. In crafting mini pop-operas (think "Strawberry Fields" and Pet Sounds), the Lips make songs that twist and turn. Strings plink and plunk. Woodwind instruments come and go. Vocals are suspended in midair. And the drums rise and fade away whenever. It's as mesmerizing as it is catchy.
Built on drums, pianos, strings, Coyne's Neil Young-reminiscent voice and theremins, the Lips' sunshine sensibility bounces through most notably on "The Spiderbite Song." "Spiderbite," a tale of physical problems that band members have had (a spider bite that almost required drummer Steven Drozd to have his hand amputated, a car wreck that bassist Michael Ivins was in), is the most accessible and intimate tune on the record. Coyne openly admits that he was scared he might have to break up the band and empathetically confesses to his bandmates that "if it destroyed you, it would destroy me, too." This type of identifying with and musing on love, sickness, disease, disaster and bugs occurs throughout the record, but Coyne rarely discusses it so directly and honestly as he does on this track.
Coyne's obsession with dark topics, while not entirely new, perhaps comes from his father's death from cancer last year, which Coyne approaches in his eccentric way. Few bands would tackle the subject of two scientists trying to find a cure for an unnamed disease the way the Lips do on the album opener, "Race for the Prize." It's a big production and an odd subject, but as the band usually does, it crafts fine and twisted pop. With a watery, backward-sounding keyboard swaying throughout, Coyne and company break out acoustic guitars and lurching drums for an AM-Gold kind of song, complete with tinned-out vocals. An odd setting for the lyrics, to say the least.
Still, it's telling that the band brought in an R&B guy, Peter Mokran, to mix a pair of tracks, including "Race for the Prize." Another hit of the magnitude of "She Don't Use Jelly" would be welcome. Mokran has worked with people such as Michael Jackson and Prince. Lips peers, Mercury Rev, the Butthole Surfers or Sonic Youth, those two artists aren't. And even though it would be great if Mokran could dial up another hit for the band, because it is worthy of more than just critical acclaim, his mixes don't sound all that different from the Lips' and producer Dave Fridmann's own. The Lips are unique, so even conventional radio magic can do little to bring them back to Earth.
-- David Simutis
Hard to Hit
"I'm starting to hate this shit I thought I once loved to death," Houston rap favorite Big Mike says on one of the tracks from his new album, Hard to Hit. You can't help but believe him when he says that. After all, this is a man who went back to his hometown of New Orleans to get in touch with what made him get into this godforsaken business in the first place. But once you go through the album, you wonder whether or not the man has found his creative mojo.
Don't get me wrong. Big Mike has still got it. His butter-dripping verbal style has never lost its kick. It's just that, on this album, you don't know if he is truly trying to change his direction and become a hip-hop vigilante, blowing away fake-ass MCs with just a mike and an extensive vocabulary, or if he's simply going through the routines and doing what he has to do to pay the bills. One track has him righteously rapping for the Lord on "Sunday Morning," while another track has him going into the regular I-don't-love-them-hoes spiel with guests Devin and MC Breed on "Better Now."
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There is even one track called "Uhh! Uhh!" that sounds like he's trying to break in on Master P's grunt-and-groan territory.
There are some clear-cut choice tunes on this album. "Made Men" has confrontational beats that, you could say, fully capture Big Mike's creative angst. "Hustlers" has Mike giving heavy shout-outs to those who do what they can to make a buck (respectfully, that is). And "Heads Like Us" is a nicely orchestrated piece, complete with jingling grooves and guitar strumming that's so crisp you could dip it in ranch dressing.
For all you Big Mike fans who plan to pick up Hard to Hit to deconstruct it rather than to just listen to it (as I'm sure many of you will do), you might be utterly befuddled by the whole thing. I guess I shouldn't be too picky. While other rappers have sold out completely, lost their credibility or ended up releasing albums that sound like they're on automatic pilot, Big Mike's search for aesthetic identity is confounding, unsettling and, at times, refreshing.
-- Craig D. Lindsey