The Flaming Lips Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots

[Warner Bros; 2002]

Styles: experimental rock, psychedelic rock, noise pop, neo-psychedelia
Others: Butthole Surfers, Mercury Rev, Spiritualized, Grandaddy, Secret Machines

The clearest illustration of the qualities of the new Flaming Lips LP, Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, can be found on the album’s cover. Depicted in broad strokes is, well, a pink robot, and, ah, a girl in a little dress--Yoshimi to be sure. This is candy-coated Japanimation, but delivered in lush painterly tones. Hello Kitty via Willem DeKooning, and it reflects the contents of the record handsomely.

The Flaming Lips are an experimental noise- rock band who experimented themselves into a broader spotlight in 1999 with their full-blown pop opera entitled The Soft Bulletin. The Bulletin was a critical favorite, and it ended the year in many "best-of" charts. The challenge of course comes with the follow-up, and The Lips have arrived at a conceit to elevate them beyond the clutches of the ghosts of Bulletin

The Flaming Lips have established themselves as an exploratory trio unafraid to imagine themselves in new rolls. They should be famous by now firstly for subverting and re-inventing the rock show by touring with boom boxes and headphones instead of guitars and drums. Likewise, they’ve refigured the concept of "stereo surround- sound" with their LP Zaireeka (1997), which was a 4-disc set whose individual discs were intended to be played at the same time in the same room. With Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, the Flaming Lips have done something less than revolutionary: they have rendered an acutely pleasant long player.

On Yoshimi, the Lips are as concerned with music that’s been released since Bulletin, as with The Bulletin itself. Those Radiohead records, Spiritualized, etc., and all of Jim O’Rourke’s bands (is there a band that Jim O’Rourke isn’t a member of?). This is to our benefit, because the Lips are a thoughtful and attentive bunch who really listen when others are talking. As a result, the Lips have constructed a simpler, groovier album of concision and composure. That said, there are moments when Yoshimi seems redundant, and that is hard to forgive after Bulletin, which never faltered, from the first note to the last. The Lips used to be a band you’d listen to for the songs. After Zaireeka and The Bulletin, they’ve become an album band. I’m unsure how Yoshimi declares itself in this context.

As a follow up to Bulletin, however, Yoshimi is a generous disc. While The Bulletin felt dire and tragic, Yoshimi, for all its battle hymns and drama, is far lighter fare. Gone are the cavernous reverberations and bombastic choirs of Bulletin, gone is the pleading and bleeding from Wayne Coyne’s sufferable throat. Instead we have highly polished veneers, songs built hermetic and airless, and a singer turning in a calm, pocketed performance. This is a pastoral record, but a synthetic one as well.

Contained in this record are the trappings of a science fiction narrative, and while The Bulletin examined the dynamics of life and death on the ground, Yoshimi is a bubblegum illustration of conflict in outer space. The songs are thematic thumbnails at best, and any glimpse at a storyline is abandoned by the fifth track.  Yoshimi feels casual like a child’s home-spun play, and it goes down easy. There are in the lyrics to these songs some of the same portentous concerns that were common to Bulletin. But the smooth surfaces of these compositions, and the softly throbbing rhythms, make the content feel immaterial, or delightful.

More playfulness found upfront: Yoshimi P-we is the name of a musician who appears on this record. She’s one of the drummers for the Boredoms, Japan’s most widely exported psychedelic prog band, and she screams and shouts across the title track of the album. Are these layers of meaning, or meaninglessness? The Lips are having fun, and fun is good.

Like the earliest incarnations of sibling band Mercury Rev, the Flaming Lips continue a dialogue with cinema that sometimes seems to overwhelm the artists. Yoshimi feels like one of those multi-million dollar films that amount to nothing. Lots of space pistols, lots of filtered lenses, but no story, no character. Yoshimi is the soundtrack to the greatest lousy Saturday afternoon movie never made. Yoshimi is the lush brushstrokes that define the most childish themes, an opera into a comic book, or a comic book into an opera. Just look at the cover.

1. Fight Test
2. One More Robot/Sympathy 3000-21
3. Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots pt. 1
4. Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots pt. 2
5. In the Morning of the Magicians
6. Ego Tripping At the Gates of Hell
7. Are You A Hypnotist??
8. It's Summertime
9. Do You Realize??
10. All We Have Is Now
11. Approaching Pavonis Mons By Balloon (Utopia Planitia)

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