You have certain expectations when going to a Flaming Lips show. You expect the wacky costumed fans (spacemen and women, priests with devil horns, plenty of butterfly wings); you expect the epileptic light show; you might even see it coming when Lips frontman Wayne Coyne enters a plastic bubble and stumbles around on the hands, heads and shoulders of the fans cramped in the first rows, in a sort of germophobic crowd surf.
But before the show even starts, Coyne is on stage, urging the crowd to listen to the train that passes less than fifty feet from the Station Square Amphitheater’s stage. It sounds like its coming from the speakers.
And it is, because the Lips put microphones near the tracks.
“Whenever the train goes by, we’ll turn it up and listen,” says Coyne. “I think it sounds amazing.”
When the show begins, no matter your expectations, it’s pretty overwhelming. The perpetually raining confetti, the strobe lights and disco balls, the giant video screen with the hallucinogenic naked dancers; they’re all the expected highlights from the Lips’ resume and it all works.
What’s unexpected is how good they sound, not because they’re in their 28th year as a group, but because their studio sound is so dynamic that a smooth translation to live-performance would seem impossible.
The Lips’ 2009 record, Embryonic, has an incredibly distinct production style. It’s artfully messy, its loud, its fuzzy. It sounds like each instrument is nudging another with its elbows, pushing and squeezing to the foreground resulting in that busy overpopulated sound.
The first single, “Silver Trembling Hands,” sounds like the soundtrack to an intergalactic Indy 500. Its a fast paced race between drums and bass, with Coyne’s lyrics and guitar sporadically piled on top, leading to slow and pretty chords in the song’s chorus (“…when she’s high…”).
It’s the second song they play and it clarifies how they can sound so good live. The production style on Embryonic sounds like an inexperienced sound mixer doing his first show, mindlessly turning knobs and micromanaging the mix. The record’s sound has the humility of a live show.
Embryonic isn’t the Lips’ best record and it may be because that production style is so relentless. It has a very distinct mood, and its hard to be in that mood for 70 minutes.
But tonight, the Lips spread it out, playing strong renditions of “Yeah Yeah Yeah Song” and “The Morning of the Magicians” and ending with “Do You Realize?”
Nearly every song comes with a bonus ending, Coyne repeating the song’s lyrics after everyone’s done clapping, eventually leading the band back in for one extra lap through the chorus. It’s a lot of fun.
Coyne sounds as good as ever. He sounds exasperated and dry-throated and aging. Luckily, he sounds exasperated and dry-throated and aging even on their oldest records, so its an honest rendition.
This seems to be the running theme of the show: the Lips know you have expectations for their show, both in performance and flamboyance, and they know how to meet them (though with more F-bombs than expected).
After “She Don’t Use Jelly,” lead guitarist Stephen Drozd notices the passing train and the microphone is turned up. Coyne tells everyone to listen.
The train has a mesmerizing rhythm, with dinks and clinks and imperfections in the track peppered on top, spanning a familiar range of metal tones and industrial timbre booming through the speakers.
Or maybe it doesn’t. But watching Coyne listen hypnotically to the passing forty-car caboose, it’s hard to ignore the romance of hundreds of people at a concert pausing to listen to the Coke Express.
“I wish we sounded like a train,” says Coyne.
“I think we do, sometimes,” says Drozd.
The Flaming Lips
Station Square Amphitheater
Tuesday, July 20, 2010.
*Photography by Hugh Twyman
*Written for WYEP Music Blog