The Flaming Lips - Seeing the Unseeable: The Complete Studio Recordings of The Flaming Lips 1986-1990 - Albums - Reviews - Soundblab

The Flaming Lips - Seeing the Unseeable: The Complete Studio Recordings of The Flaming Lips 1986-1990

by Mark Moody Rating:9 Release Date:2018-05-25
The Flaming Lips - Seeing the Unseeable:  The Complete Studio Recordings of The Flaming Lips 1986-1990
The Flaming Lips - Seeing the Unseeable: The Complete Studio Recordings of The Flaming Lips 1986-1990

I can count on one hand, with a few fingers left over, the number of artists I have approached after a gig.  A couple of those have happened post writing for this site, but going back three decades my brother and I chatted up The Flaming Lips in the parking lot after a show in Houston.  Not too far from their Oklahoma home base, the band was touring on the heels of their second album, Oh My Gawd!!!.  My brother was crazy about the album and I was (and still am) up for about any type of live music show.  I don’t remember a lot of details about the show or the quick discussion, but I do remember that the set was effectively played out as a single song with no stops for probably an hour and a half.  The band brought their own swirling lights and a bubble machine (before such things were commonplace) that turned the dingy confines of the gutted out Axiom nightclub into a psychedelic den for the night.  I also remember my brother expressed a particular affinity for the song ‘Ode to C.C. (Part II)’ which got a laugh from Wayne Coyne, Michael Ivins and whoever else was in their company back then.  A bit of a miracle that thirty plus years on the band is still going strong and that the band has been a bit of a constant in my life.  A long while after that show and encounter my three kids insisted on hearing Yoshimi battle it out with the pink robots every time we were in the car for the better part of a year - they still love it.  But I’m ranging a bit far afield here…

The release of Seeing The Unseeable:  The Complete Studio Recordings of The Flaming Lips 1986-1990, brings together the band's first four remastered studio albums along with two albums/discs worth of demos and outtakes.  Much of the outtake material is extracted from the excellent expanded edition of In a Priest Driven Ambulance that was titled The Day They Shot a Hole in the Jesus Egg.  Part of the Jesus Egg release was entitled The Mushroom Tapes which is included here and consist primarily of demos that ended up on Priest, but also serve as a bridge from one of the band’s earliest incarnations to the beginnings of their ever-expanding expansiveness.  

My view on their earliest works is not wildly different than most of what’s already been written about their first four albums.  Hear It Is and Oh My Gawd!!! are a bit of a set, Telepathic Surgery thankfully an outlier in their catalog, and In a Priest Driven Ambulance their breakthrough and first minor masterpiece.  With Wayne’s brother Mark (who was originally the band’s lead vocalist) departing, Wayne took over as lead vocalist and Richard English joined as drummer alongside original bassist Ivins (along with Coyne, Ivins remains the only constant in the band).  

Their first of four albums with Restless, this one on the Pink Dust sub-label, the oh-so-wittily named album Hear It Is has a psych-rock air about it but goes from acoustic to electric, soft to loud, and mundane to weird and weirder many times and back and forth.  Though a bit of a wash, rinse, repeat affair, there are many solid songs and they don’t lack for topics interesting enough to keep you plugged in.  The seven minute ‘Jesus Shootin’ Heroin’ serves as the album’s centerpiece and a bit of roadmap of the album itself.  It starts as a languid acoustic ballad until it gets to the punchline of the title and devolves into a Zeppelin-style headbanger complete with soaring background vocals.  The song is also the first of self-proclaimed atheist (see cover photo) Coyne’s many fascinations with Jesus as his central character over his career.  The scandalously named song is primarily notable for its theme, as there are better songs on the album including the first of many Pink Floyd influenced meanderers ‘She Is Death’.  ‘Godzilla Flick’ also stands out and of the more energetic songs, ‘Trains Brains and Rain’ is the most interesting.  On the flip side, the band’s efforts to bash it out come up pretty uninspiring on songs like ‘Unplugged’, ‘Charlie Manson Blues’, and ‘Man From Pakistan’.  With New Wave in its heyday and attention being grabbed by the beginnings of hip hop, the Lips were doing something different if not a bit of a twist on old school psych.  But for the time being no one likely noticed much or could have guessed this album would be the launch of a thirty plus year musical journey.

My own first introduction to the band came with the following year’s Oh My Gawd!!!  OMG is a much more colorful affair, both from the purchase inspiring cover art to the musical palette employed.  Where the first album had more of a soft/loud formula either from track to track or within each track, here things start to get more melty and colorful.  With Coyne’s reassurance on ‘Everything’s Exploding’ that it’s just fine when your brains are falling out of your head and shit is flying everywhere the beginnings of a bizarro journey are established.  Though heavily Floyd influenced, the following ‘One Million Billionth of a Millisecond on a Sunday Morning’ shows the band taking a bit more care with guitar parts and more precision in the drum work and actually putting some effort into “composing” a longer track.  (There is no doubt that this song was the framework for the live show I saw way back when and if there were other songs played they were weaved through this syrupy structure).  Bringing yet another influence to the table, The Who’s stamp is all over the acoustic strum and angst of ‘Can’t Exist’.  But it’s really in the last half of the album that you begin to see the uniqueness of the band emerge as much in the trippiness of the lyrics as the warp of the notes.  The rush and fade of ‘The Ceiling Is Bendin’’ shows the band taking wobbly steps towards their own sound and the balance of the album, for the most part, maintains interest.  ‘Prescription: Love’ and ‘Can’t Stop the Spring’ provide some crunch in between the sun dazed sounds of the other tracks including the escapist ‘Love Yer Brain’ which ends in the blissful destruction of an already badly out of tune piano. 

Given the auspicious progress of OMG, the ill-conceived Telepathic Surgery is as poorly planned as its cover graphics.  It seems as if there was little planning involved anywhere along the way as evidenced by the stray ‘c’ of the first word in the title being lumped in with the last.  Borrowing a song title from a much later album, Telepathic Surgery can be explained as ‘A Spoonful Weighs a Ton’.  It’s the band's attempt to get heavy and veers to hard rock in far too many places.  Coyne is not a screamer as becomes starkly obvious on one of the few contrasting tracks here, ‘Chrome Plated Suicide’.  Purportedly modeled after a Guns ’N’ Roses song, it sounds to me much more like a revved up ‘Brain Damage’ off of Dark Side of the Moon.  But for the most part, the album disposes of any adventure previously shown and devolves into pedestrian guitar chords and a bash of drums.  ‘Fryin’ Up’, ‘Redneck School of Technology’, and the closing ‘Begs and Achin’’ are truly awful and thankfully I’ve never had to endure the 23 minute version of ‘Hell’s Angel’s Cracker Factory’ with only a shortened version included here.  Even the somewhat interesting tale in ‘U.F.O. Story’ is marred by name dropping Michael Stipe at the beginning and then devolving into a noise fest at the end.  The only other worthwhile track outside of ‘Suicide’ is the tripped out ‘Last Drop of Morning Dew’ which sounds like a spacier version of The Eagle’s ‘Take It To The Limit’.  The album leaves you wondering how the promise of their earlier progress could have been tossed in favor of this mess.  As Coyne admitted in his notes to Jesus Egg this album was almost the end of the band, but instead serves as a dense lump of matter that forms the beginning of the still exploding universe that the band continues to explore.

More than half of The Mushroom Tape demos that appear here end up as fully formed tracks on In a Priest Driven Ambulance.  The demos were recorded in Ivins’ mother's empty house that was up for sale and fortunately for all of us shows the band soldiering on in the aftermath of Telepathic Surgery and the departure of English.  Without what happened next, the Lips as we know them would very likely not exist today.  One time friend and guitarist Jonathan Donahue (soon to release material with Mercury Rev) along with drummer Nathan Roberts were added to the band.  Not to dismiss his contribution, as it was massive if not short-lived,  but most importantly Donahue introduced the band to Dave Fridmann who provided the band with cheap studio space at the State University of New York Fredonia where he was a student (Fridmann’s work on Priest also became his senior thesis and first of dozens of career production credits).  Fridmann turned the band away from the self-implosion that Telepathic Surgery was leading to and pushed the band in a much more creative direction.  

Importantly, Coyne also puts together a blend of ironic yet heartfelt songs that today in hindsight tug as much at the heart as they do the mind.  When on ‘Rainin’ Babies’, Coyne earnestly declares with a catch in his throat that “this is my present to the world” it today resonates to mean the gift of this music.  Even if at the time he was taking a sideways swipe at the Creator hurling infants down into a harsh landscape.  And one could be forgiven for not anticipating Coyne throwing down the brilliance of the fried folk anthem of ‘Five Stop Mother Superior Rain’ that endures as one of his finest moments.  Invoking JFK, John Lennon and Jesus Christ all in the same song is undoubtedly ballsy, but with the song opening on the line “I was born they day they shot JFK” it bears up fully over its six minute course.  With follow-on lines of “tell this machine I’m not a machine” and “fucked if I do and fucked if I don’t”, the feeling of being a cog in the indecipherable universe is palpable.  Elsewhere the noisy buzz of ‘Unconsciously Screaming’ and ‘God Walks Among Us Now’, while as abrasive as anything on the album’s predecessor, brings a vibrant forward-moving energy that was previously absent.  The album ranges further from the loose groove of ‘Take Meta Mars’ to the feedback stomp of ‘Mountain Side’.  Closing with a cover of Louis Armstrong’s ‘(What a) Wonderful World’ may have seemed tongue in cheek back then, but today seems more a wide-eyed pledge to positivity in the face of indifference.  Maybe a bit of hyperbole, but Priest today feels more necessary than ever and by not being able to reconcile all around him Coyne comes up vulnerably human.  

Though Priest alone is worth the budget price of admission for this six CD set, the first two albums have their own individual rewards and you get two album’s worth of bonus tracks.  The Mushroom Tapes alone are a fascinating glimpse into the strength of the material Coyne gave Fridmann to work with.  Also included are live covers of Sonic Youth’s ‘Death Valley ’69’, Neil Young’s ‘After the Goldrush’, and a bitter with the sweet mash-up of ‘Strychnine/Peace, Love, and Understanding’.  Other longer form experiments like ‘She’s Gone Mad Again’ are more interesting than anything on Telepathic Surgery.  And including an alternate piano backed version of ‘Five Stop’ is just gravy on the biscuit to borrow from the band’s regional roots.  With upcoming plans to re-release remastered versions of a good chunk of the Lips subsequent material, Seeing the Unseeable does as advertised - it offers a glimpse into the nearly forgotten early history of the band and includes the precise moment, in Priest, where things clicked instead of clanked.

Overall Rating (1)

5 out of 5 stars
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