- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Flaming Lips Embryonic Warner Bros. Records

The Flaming Lips’ new album is that rarest of rare birds — a sprawling, polyphonic double album of the old school. While it doesn’t have the heft or importance of Led Zepplin’s “Physical Graffiti” or “Electric Ladyland” by the Jimi Hendrix Experience, “Embryonic” clearly is inspired by the same kind of anarchic imagination that gave flight to those forebears.

Think of it as a concept album without a concept. The songs are fragmentary and have a spontaneous feeling. Like kaleidoscopic images, they’re meant to be appreciated in their brief and urgent moments of existence rather than understood on a cognitive level. That’s another way of saying don’t bother looking for the interconnectedness and consistency of previous Flaming Lips efforts such as “At War With the Mystics” and “Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots.” Instead, just appreciate “Embryonic” as a trippy meander through a shifting soundscape.

Despite the electronic bent, with multiple synth parts and spooky guitar effects, some of the songs sound improvised — or at least tackled — in a single take. The quirky track “I Can Be a Frog” features guest vocalist Karen O. of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs interjecting animal sounds and giggles behind lead singer Wayne Coyne. The track is edited to include some incidental banter between the two about a possible retake. There and elsewhere on “Embryonic,” the edges of the canvas are left unpainted, perhaps as a way of drawing the listener into the creative process.

The track “The Impulse” has an Al Green-inspired gentleness to it, with a lightly plucked bass playing against a soft, funky keyboard. It feels almost like trance elevator music in its repetitiveness but is genuinely soothing for all that.

“Impulse” finds an opposite in “Aquarius Sabotage,” an off-kilter, metal-influenced tantrum of a song, all broken glass and distortion. The astrological theme is also picked up — at least in terms of Mr. Coyne’s song titles — on “Gemini Syringes,” which features a voice-over that sounds like a lecture on complex polynomials. In this vein, there’s also “Scorpio Sword,” “Virgo Self-Esteem Broadcast” and the bass-heavy closer, “Watching the Planets.”

What “Embryonic” lacks as a classic double album is the lengthy track that would take up a full LP side. In a way, however, the entire album is one such track — one that’s divided into songs here and there but may as well not be.

It’s a feature of album reviews these days to recommend one or two tracks for download. But on “Embryonic,” single songs would sound choppy in isolation or shuffled in a mix. It’s one of the enduring charms of the Flaming Lips that their music merits unwavering attention. While “Embryonic” is not quite up there with “Yoshimi” or “The Soft Bulletin,” it makes for a rewarding 70-minute psychedelic jaunt.

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