Graded on a Curve:
The Flaming Lips,
In a Priest Driven Ambulance (With Silver Sunshine Stares)

Celebrating Wayne Coyne on his 61st birthday.Ed.

You know there’s something wrong when you go to see a band you thought you loved, only to discover you’d sooner be at Altamont. Such was the case for me with The Flaming Lips. This was sometime after 2002’s Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots, and the sight of Wayne Coyne in his plastic bubble and all those happy people playing with those wacky giant bouncing balls left a sour taste in my mouth. The Flaming Lips I loved were psychedelic schizoids who played their guitars real loud and sang wrong. And their songs were dark, really dark. This seemed like recess for elementary school kids. I left disgusted.

I haven’t been able to listen to their new stuff—it’s far too lush, high tech, smooth, and “inspiring” for my jaded tastes—since. Or to most of their older stuff either. Indeed, the only Flaming Lips album I continue to love and think is utterly brilliant is 1990’s In a Priest Driven Ambulance (With Silver Sunshine Stares). It’s sublimely bleak, religiously obsessed, ragged, and sublimely strange: The Lips’ very own equivalent of Neil Young’s in-the-gutter masterpiece Tonight’s the Night.

The Flaming Lips’ line-up on the LP was Wayne Coyne (guitar, vocals), Michael Ivins (bass), Jonathan Donahue (guitar), and Nathan Roberts (drums). Donahue of course later returned full-time to Mercury Rev, whose 1991 debut Yerself Is Steam is that band’s In a Priest Driven Ambulance. Both The Flaming Lips and Mercury Rev utilized producer (and arch-villain) Dave Fridmann, whom I personally hold responsible for transforming both bands from LSD mutants into overly produced, bloated, symphonic shadows of their former selves. Dave Fridmann, phony Phil Spector of phreak rock, get lost! And take your damned singing saw with you!

Ranging from raw acoustic numbers to full-blown psycho rockers, In a Priest Driven Ambulance never fails to make me happy. Take the wonderful “Five Stop Mother Superior Rain,” which opens with acoustic guitar and features Coyne sounding like an Okie (well, he is an Okie) as he sings (and an ecstatic electric guitar joins in), “My hands are in the air/And I swear they always are/You’re fucked if you do/And you’re fucked if you don’t/Five Stop Mother Superior Rain.” And “I was born/The day they shot John Lennon’s brain/And all my smiles/Getting in the hate generation’s way.” And almost as cool is “Shine on Sweet Jesus,” which features some furious feedback and some weird bass backing vocals and kicks along at a fair pace while Coyne sings in a raggedy voice and one fantastically distorted guitar solo (and some song-ending guitar caterwaul) blow your mind.

As for “Unconsciously Screamin’,” it’s one raging psychedelic blowout, with the guitars kicking down the barn door during the chorus (“Unconsciously screamin’/And whispering/At everything she brings”) and Coyne singing, “Screaming till our lungs are full/Kicking down the teeth/We’re not what we used to be/We’re just paranoid.” Then comes one insane guitar solo with Coyne singing nonsense above it, and then he’s very consciously screaming as the song comes to its freak-out of an ending.

That horrid chestnut “(What a) Wonderful World” could have blown the whole album for me, but Coyne’s voice is so out-of-kilter it’s lovable, and the guitars that come barging in at the 1:12 mark save the song from mawkishness. This is the only one of 12 billion versions of “Wonderful World”—whose thesis I find completely dunderheaded, being an unrepentant pessimist and world hater—I’ve ever been able to stomach.

Meanwhile, “Stand in Line” is a strange, slow acoustic number with some freaky electric guitar fills and Coyne dragging his words way, way out on such lines as “Ten men stand in line/Waitin’ for some personality/Put out on the corner/Today ain’t garbage day/Ain’t no garbage taken today.” And you’ve got to love the way a guitar starts to hum and buzz leading into a big, ascending “Day in The Life”-style build-up that ends before the song does, leaving just that weird humming guitar, the acoustic guitar, and Coyne singing and whistling.

“God Walks Among Us Now” is another distorto-guitar rave-up, with Coyne singing through a distortion pedal about how “Used to be alright/But things got strange/Used to be uptight/But things have changed/And God walks among us now” to the accompaniment of that fractured guitar, which is so cool I’d swap my left nut for it. Then Coyne’s voice gets really distorted, and Roberts’ goes savage on the drums, and the whole thing ends in a forty-car pile-up with no survivors.

As for “There You Are,” it’s a lyrically twisted but pretty acoustic number with Coyne singing sorta outta tune (not that he cares), “And it makes you think that God/Was fucked up when he made this town,” and “There you are/And you drive in your car/And you wish for the stars/And you end up face down in the road/Dead as fuck.” You’re not going to find black-hearted lyrics like that on the more blandly optimistic later albums, I can fucking A guarantee you that.

“Rainin’ Babies” begins with distorted guitar, then opens up into a pretty melody, then gets really loud as Coyne sings desperately, “This is my present to the world/And I want you to take it/This is my present to the world/Please, please take it from me.” The German word “Gift” means poison, and Coyne sings like that’s the kind of gift he’s trying to pawn off on us while it rains babies on his head. And Roberts bashes away on the drums and the guitars are firing off crazy riffs and forging bombastic power chords until the rather laid-back guitar solo, then crash! and you’re back into the big chorus, which is followed by some felony drum abuse and one-for-real stoked guitar solo.

As for “Take Meta Mars,” it’s drum-driven and kinda funky, and Coyne sings, “Yea, because when I drive in my car/We puts heads in jars” which is really creepy or maybe hilarious, I can’t tell. A guitar comes roaring in then disappears, once, twice, and Coyne pleads to be taken to Mars, which as everybody knows is a dumb idea because Mars ain’t no place to raise a kid, in fact it’s cold as Hell.

“Mountain Side” is yet another big stomper, with buzzing feedback and Coyne “dying in your plane crash of love” and “crashing through your windshield of love” and generally having a really bad day. And suddenly there’s a long instrumental section with more buzzing guitars and some spooky feedback that goes on until Roberts’ drums kick in and the guitar really takes off, with Coyne singing one of the most funniest lines I’ve ever heard, to wit: “And I hold your electric toaster while/Standin’ in your bathtub of love.” I wish I’d thought of that line when I wrote the lyrics to the non-hit single “Let’s Go Hurt Myself” for my old band Lesbian Boy, but that’s the difference between genius and what a Washington Post reviewer described as the problem with our sole release: “It’s the stupid lyrics, stupid.”

And there you have it. Now I’m not implying that NONE of the later albums have great songs on them. “Bad Days,” “Evil Will Prevail,” and “Psychiatric Explorations of the Fetus With Needles” off 1995’s Clouds Taste Metallic are all killer tunes, and I could name more songs off other LPs but I’m too lazy. And there’s no denying the greatness of “Waitin’ for a Superman” and “Do You Realize?”

But even “Do You Realize?” is massively over-produced, and the lyrics are really rather banal. No, The Flaming Lips went from the acid-gobbling freaks who produced “Five Stop Mother Superior Rain” to feel-good hucksters whose live shows are built on giant bouncing balls and other forms of infantile gimcrackery. And gave up their screwy guitar squawk for a mushy and ultimately bland hipster muzak that is nice enough if your tastes run towards the tame. They were a tiger but now they’re a petting zoo, and the same goes for Mercury Rev. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again—Dave Fridmann, you bastard, you have a lot to answer for.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A

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