The Flaming Lips – Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots

The Flaming Lips
Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots

I don’t know how they (advertisers/marketers) did it without piles of MTV videos and a little controversial subject matter, but most everyone has heard or at least heard of the Flaming Lips. Back when killing toads with tennis rackets and learning the blood code for Mortal Kombat were desensitizing my decadent ethos, I knew that the Flaming Lips was growing a buzz, but I didn’t know whether they were the songwriters that penned “Blister in the Sun” or if it was some kind of 80s porn movie that I was conceived on. My first attempt at listening to them was with the first song on Zaireeka. Due to our shoddy equipment, the CDs were not *NSync; besides, I don’t think I was ready for that album. So it took me another couple years to properly discover them, and that discovery came in the form of The Soft Bulletin, one of the most amazing and influential albums of the 90s.
And now we have its highly anticipated follow-up, Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots. The most obvious shift from the band’s previous outings is the interplay between the vocals and the music. Where many songs on The Soft Bulletin are comprised of dynamic, climactic, tagent-filled compositions, the songs on Yoshimi are a bit more streamlined. This is likely due to the fact that most of the songs coast on a similar mid-tempo beat and melodic bassline, evident on tracks like “Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots pt. 1,” “Ego Tripping at the Gates of Hell,” “Are You a Hypnotist?,” and “It’s Summertime.” This apparent shift in musicianship causes the background music to sound like a plate that the vocals were thrown upon, whereas the music on The Soft Bulletin accentuated the vocal melodies in an engaging give-and-take manner.
This idea of carelessly written vocal parts and less active musicianship could be attributed to the band’s songwriting process for the album. A couple months before the release of the album, the band’s official website mentioned how nearly half of the songs intended for the album had no vocals at that point, and the band was unsure how many of those instrumentals would actually end up with vocals. Since Yoshimi has only two instrumentals, we can induce that the vocals were probably not the band’s primary concern. One could argue that this concentration on the music rather than the vocals would make the instrumentation stronger. But on the other hand, it could have ultimately affected the overall dynamic of the songs because the lack of creative involvement with Wayne Coyne’s vocal lines. Also, the unpredictable tangents that characterized Zaireeka and The Soft Bulletin are no longer present, as the songs rely on the aforementioned robotic drum beats and melodic basslines. It almost seems like the Flaming Lips has regressed a little, structurally and rhythmically speaking.
Other than the speculation about the vocals and the missing tangents, Yoshimi is very strong. The music is not any stranger than before, but it is definitely spacier, providing yet another great album for late-night driving. The first half echoes songs on Clouds Taste Metallic or Transmissions from the Satellite Heart more than they do any of their other albums; they are upbeat, brim with the band’s trademark quirkiness, and have a similar sunshine underpin. The overall tone of the last half is more relaxed and subdued, harkening the softer moments on The Soft Bulletin. Although not as grand, the songs have less instruments clouding the music and more concentration on contrapuntal melodies. Nearly every song is drenched with reverb, and the vocals for most songs are run through a delay. Opposed to previous outings, the Lips employ more synths, keyboards, and samples, and they use the guitar as the filler rather than the primary rhythm force.
Album centerpiece “In the Morning of the Magicians” is the most engaging song on the album (one of the only songs that does not rely on a constant drum beat and melodic bassline). The song is extended over six minutes in length and manages to entertain the listener with its shifting styles; it would rest comfortably on Zaireeka due to its unpredictable structure. Although “Are You a Hypnotist?” is plagued with the banal mid-tempo drum beat, the beat proves much more creative and interesting this time around. Diminished guitar notes and off-kilter vocals provide the song an eerie feeling as Coyne unravels yet another unusual narrative.
Elswhere, “One More Robot/Sympathy 3000-21” is a piano-laden melancholy number about – you guessed it – robots. The song has one of the best choruses that I’ve heard in quite awhile, and the outro is simply beautiful with its melting strings and smiling synths that catapult the song toward the heavens. The craziest, most outrageous track is the instrumental “Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots pt. 2.” It’s abrasive, distorted, bubbly, and in-your-face, one of the Flaming Lips’ weirdest songs. Generalizing the rest of the tracks, most of them are fairly straightforward, but it takes repeated listens to get the most of every sound – and trust me, there are layers upon layers of noise throughout its 11 tracks.
Who knew such a huge major label corporation could foster such an amazing band like the Flaming Lips? Despite the cash cow and the suits of the band’s corporate daddy, their CDs remain in ubiquity even among the elitist snobby type, nudged comfortably between their Fennesz and Fly Pan Am CDs. The great thing is, the band uses its major label money to experiment, such as with Zaireeka (4-disc set sold for the price of one) and the forthcoming movie, Xmas on Mars. Critics and fans give what only a handful of other commercial artists have been lucky enough to receive: respect. And respect is not given to just anyone; it is something that must be earned, and the Flaming Lips has definitely earned its respect.
The Flaming Lips have come a long way since its inception in 1983. No longer is the band the spokesgroup for weird, quirky music, but they are the leaders of the abundantly forming transcendent art-rock bands. With an impressive catalog of experimental rock music, the Flaming Lips have carved an exciting musical career, one of prolificacy and creativity. With Yoshimi, this zany quartet creates new sounds with an ear on the past. Though the band’s structural experimental nature is not as prominent on Yoshimi, the album holds its own on the strength of the pop songs itself. Sure, Yoshimi didn’t really exceed its exquisite predecessor, but does it really matter anyway? Alone, this album is very strong with very few weak moments. And that’s more than I could ask of any album, whether it was preceded with an amazing album or not. Invest in the Flaming Lips; the stock is rising motherfucker.