When Flaming Lips guitarist Ronald Jones left the band six years ago, lead singer and rhythm guitarist Wayne Coyne, drummer Steven Drozd and bassist Michael Ivins wondered seriously if the band would survive.
Because of Jones' exceptional talents, much of the music on such Flaming Lips CDs as Transmissions from the Satellite Heart (1993) and Clouds Taste Metallic (1995) had been built around his playing.
"When he quit it was like, 'wow, what's going to happen? What are we going to do?'" Drodz said. "And really it was a very short period of time where we were worried about what was going to happen."
But instead of deflating their efforts, the Flaming Lips have risen to even greater heights. The group's 1999 CD, The Soft Bulletin, was universally hailed as one of the year's finest albums and frequently compared to the landmark albums The Beach Boys' Pet Sounds and The Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band for its innovative sound.
The latest Flaming Lips CD, Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots, has drawn reviews that are almost as enthusiastic and has spawned a new EP, Flight Test, which features alternate versions of a pair of tracks from the Yoshimi CD along with a few covers and two new tracks.
So what happened? In Drozd's view, the Lips found a way to turn a severe setback into a golden opportunity.
"For us it's just opened us up to not be afraid to try brand-new ideas," Drozd said. "I really wanted to try orchestration and strings and horns and choirs and just really big sort of sophisticated arrangements and stuff. And it just worked out perfectly because Wayne was sort of looking for something else, too. We didn't know what. We just started experimenting with different styles of music -- you know, more complex, harmonically challenging chord structures and stuff like that. And there you go."
The extent of the reinvention of the Flaming Lips sound was blatantly obvious when The Soft Bulletin arrived in record stores.
In contrast to the guitar-based mix of offbeat psychedelic rock, punk, and bubblegum pop that had characterized the Lips' music since the band formed in 1984, The Soft Bulletin is a richly textured, highly diverse CD that largely avoided guitar in favor of a wealth of other sonic treatments. The group eagerly embraced the world of computer-generated instrumentation and rhythms, but also blended those styles with such organic instruments as strings, harp, guitar and piano.
Then came Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots, a CD that is being characterized by some as a concept album.
It's easy enough to see how one could jump to that conclusion. The title itself suggests an overarching theme, and the CD includes a trio of tracks, "One More Robot/Sympathy 3000-21," "Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots pt. 1" and "Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots pt. 2," that seems like it should tell a story.
But in reality, Drozd said, the band just wanted to create some common themes in the material.
"Wayne's really good at that kind of stuff, tying concepts and having a philosophy for the whole thing. But that didn't really come about until much later. We didn't know what we were doing. We got a little over half way through the record and then all of a sudden: this is looking like it could be this LP thing. Then he sort of came up with the concept of the pink robots, and now that it's out people are trying to divine all this meaning from it, which is fun."
In reality, the trio of robot songs has more thematic commonalties than any linear connection. "One More Robot/Sympathy 3000-21" is a tale of a robot that somehow falls in love with a girl, and instead of carrying out its command to kill the girl, decides to destroy itself. "Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots" casts a Japanese girl as the one human who has the strength to destroy a pack of evil robots.
The remaining songs on the CD take more of a personal turn as lyricist Coyne concerns himself with a variety of life's weightier issues. The nature of love ("In the Morning Of The Magicians"), the fragile nature of life ("Do You Realize?") and the need to stand up for one's beliefs ("Flight Test") all find their place in the loosely connected gathering of songs.
Musically, the Yoshimi CD builds on the sonic direction of The Soft Bulletin. Synthesizers and electronic music are prominent parts of the sonic palette. Songs like "One More Robot/Sympathy 3000-21" and "In the Morning of the Magicians" conjure the electronic arrangements while tunes like "Do You Realize," "Flight Test" and "Ego Tripping at the Gates of Hell" lean more toward tightly structured pop.
"I see it as sort of a continuation of that kind of [Soft Bulletin] thing," Drozd said. "It's not like we totally went to some other place with this record. I think it's still evolving from that in a more sophisticated sort of songwriting with Wayne's philosophical lyrics."
The Flaming Lips are touring behind their two most recent releases, and the June 3 show at Ogden Theatre in Denver will feature Liz Phair as a special guest.
-- Alan Sculley