Thursday, July 25, 2013

Clouds Taste Metallic -- The Flaming Lips -- Review

Clouds Taste Metallic (1995)
Rating: 13
"It's hard to read the writing through the flames"
Best Song: Psychiatric Explorations of the Fetus with Needles
Worst Song: Kim's Watermelon Gun

       I am so close to giving this a 14...SO CLOSE. But I have juuuust enough problems with the album to deny it that score...but just barely. After Transmissions, it seems that Steven's aspirations really took over. (And why not? He got them their first hit, after all!) As is obvious to anyone who knows Mr. Drozd's musical tastes, he's more of a melody/arrangement kind of guy than a "rockin'" kind of guy -- in other words, I'm pretty sure he was the main cause behind the band's grand exodus from the world of noisy guitar-rock to the world of beautiful, pretentious art-rock. This here album marks the big transition -- herein lies the only place where you can clearly say "okay, this is a blend of their two styles". It would be another 11 years before the band used an electric guitar as a crucial sound in one of their songs. Just chew on that...11 freakin' years.
       So there's your set-up. Now, what exactly is causing me to deny Clouds the big 1-4? Hm...well, it's more of a feeling than anything concrete. You see, the album has an overall "loose" feel that can be a little hard to adjust to. It's most apparent in the really anthemic, epic tracks; songs like "Placebo Headwound" might not sound quite right on your first few listens. The individual pieces might not click well for you, until you really give it a chance. You'll eventually focus (hopefully) on the undeniably great portions -- that amazing "It's not so clear anymore to meeeee" hook, the stately piano lines, those swooning vocal arrangements -- and you'll have forgotten about the slightly uncomfortable transitions and near-imperceptible awkward pauses in no time. Again, this awkward feel is hard for me to nail down in writing; heck, I don't even notice it anymore. But I've read many a review commenting on it, and I certainly felt it at first, so it's definitely a factor here.
       I think the band finally found its sense of wanting to make something great here -- you can tell they went into the studio looking to make a real classic, as opposed to just a good 'ol rock album. I think the bizarre feel that I keep referring to is a result of this; they wanted to make some kind of grand statement, but they didn't have quite the know-how to do so...yet. It would take a few more years for that to develop.
       Any other reasons not to give it a 14? Well, the general sound of the album is very samey (every song has pretty much the exact same guitar tone), and it might take a while for you to start distinguishing the tracks (it's sort of like Joy Division's Unknown Pleasures in that way...although the Joy Division similarities end there). Plus, it's got more songs than any Lips albums other than Embryonic, and by the time that "Bad Days" reaches its conclusion at the end of the album, I'm honestly ready for it to be over.
       But other than that...geez, this thing's perfect. I'm talking really high quality songwriting all around -- gold stars for everyone involved. This is most easily seen in the classic (and in my opinion, the best song they had released up to this point) "Psychiatric Explorations of the Fetus with Needles". It's easily at the top of the mountain as far as their more rocking efforts go, showcasing one of the greatest vocal melodies I've EVER heard along with a ridiculously gleeful sense of energy. If you're ever in need of a pick-me-up, "Psychiatric Explorations" should do it -- I can think of no other song that embodies sheer happiness like this one does. And this grin-inducing mania of a track is pulled off even as Wayne sings about...abortions, or the food chain, or something. That's right, Mr. Coyne was able to write one of the happiest songs ever and have the lyrics be about abortions. Suck on that, McCartney. Forget "I feel good in a special way", we Lip fans can get our kicks with "They beat you up, they make you leave / Sticking needles in your knees".
       And how many uplifting love ballads do you know of that feature lyrics like "All of the subatomic pieces come together and unfold themselves in a second", a killer bass groove, one seriously shredding guitar solo, and magnificent, Zeppelin-level drumming? I know of none other than "When You Smile", and it's just as fantastic as it sounds. And for more brilliant arrangements, you need not look any further than "Guy Who Got a Headache and Accidentally Saved the World". At first glance it seems just like an ordinary, ultra-heavy rocker (albeit a brilliant one), but even aside from the hilarious title (and yes, the song's title is quite literally describing what goes on in the lyrics) you've got three-way vocal harmonies, at least four guitar overdubs, crowd noises, call-and-response sections featuring yet another appearance from the infamous ultra-deep voice, beautifully ascending keyboard lines, and a hilariously charismatic performance from Wayne as he imitates a radio announcer. Now THAT'S how you handle track arrangement.
       And everything else is similarly great. The tale of two lovers broken apart by...erm, NASA, "They Punctured My Yolk" is absolutely breathtaking. Heartbreakingly regal and stately, driven by a tear-jerking melody that almost sounds like a lullaby, it's easily one of the best tracks here. "Brainville" is another classic, mixing some silly lyrics (I'm pretty sure Wayne's bashing college here, right?) with one of the best acoustic melodies I could possibly think of. And oh, isn't that guitar line in the "I know it must look bad!" section just so wonderfully triumphant?      
       "Lightning Strikes the Postman" is a deliciously crunchy rocker with clever lyrics, "Evil Will Prevail" is a GORGEOUS folk song, and "Christmas at the Zoo" is easily the best song I've ever heard with the word "Christmas" in the title (although, embarrassingly enough, I've always had a soft spot for "Do They Know It's Christmas?"). [EDIT: I completely forgot about The Who's "Christmas", which is one of my very favorite Who songs. Oops.]  I suppose that the rollicking "Kim's Watermelon Gun" is the worst song on here just because it's fairly forgettable, but it's still a completely competent rocker with some fun backing vocals and a rousing lead guitar line.
       This is definitely the best place to start with the band's pre-Soft Bulletin period -- it may take a bit to be able to sit through the whole thing in one sitting, but the songs here are a lot more immediate than anything on Transmissions or Priest Driven Ambulance. Plus, for those of you who aren't fans of noise-rock, this album also marked Ronald moving into a position of providing more riffs and licks, as opposed to providing sheer noise, so there's yet another reason for this being a great starting point. Anyway, accessibility aside, this is just an absolutely brilliant album -- one of the Lips' best, and one of the 90s' best. 

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