Thursday, July 25, 2013

Zaireeka - The Flaming Lips - Review

Zaireeka (1997)
Rating: 12
"You're invisible now, and I know that it's hard to get used to"
Best Song: Riding to Work in the Year 2025 or Thirty-Five Thousand Feet of Despair
Worst Song: The Train Runs Over the Camel But is Derailed by the Gnat

       Oh boy, where to start...well, after Clouds Ronald realized that he wasn't too crazy about that whole "fame" thing and decided to leave the music industry forever. This left the band without a lead guitarist, which was just enough to give Wayne, Michael, and Steven a good excuse to experiment a bit with their live shows. They proceeded to create something known as the "Parking Lot Experiments", where the band gathered loads of fans in a parking lot and handed out up to 50 individual tapes. They would then instruct their fans to place these tapes into their car stereo. At this point, Wayne would instruct everyone to press "PLAY" on their stereo at exactly the same time. 
       You see, the band intricately constructed a variety of songs that they would then break apart into several different tracks. These individual tracks were then placed onto the tapes used in this experiment. So the general effect was that if everyone pressed play on their individual stereo at a simultaneous moment, all of these different tapes would combine to create a sort of "mutated symphony", as Wayne puts it. 
       At this point during the "show", Wayne would proceed to "conduct" the various participants of the experiment, instructing audience members to increase or decrease the volume on their stereo depending on what the principle parts of the song were. For example, he might tell the guy playing the tape with the vocal melody on it to turn his stereo to maximum volume, whereas the woman with the overbearing horn part might be instructed to back off on her tape a little bit.
       Shockingly enough, the experiments turned out to be a success -- most of the audience members were such hardcore music fans that something as ridiculous as a Parking Lot Experiment would actually interest them. As such, Wayne decided that he wanted the band's next album to be a sort of "home version" of the Parking Lot Experiments. The group would simply make ten discs as opposed to the fifty used in the original experiments.
       As you might expect, Warner Bros. completely balked at this idea. After the success of "She Don't Use Jelly" and the Transmissions album in general, the company was greatly dissapointed by the poor sales of Clouds Taste Metallic. The band was just one mistake away from being dropped from their record label, and an album that required ten discs to be played simultaneously certainly wasn't an option.  Saddened by their proposal's rejection, Michael and Steven were eventually able to talk Wayne into asking Warner Bros. if they would consider publishing an album of *merely* 4 discs.  The company still wasn't entirely sold on the idea, however they finally cracked when Wayne ensured that their next two albums would both be made in this session -- the first would be the vastly experimental, four-disc album, and the second would be a collection of outtakes from the same recording sessions.
       ...what, did something there surprise you? Yup, that's right kiddies, The Soft Bulletin is actually a collection of outtakes from Zaireeka. Indeed, the songs on TSB, the album generally regarded as VASTLY superior to Zaireeka (a claim that I fully support), are the ones deemed either "not good enough for Zaireeka" or ones that simply didn't work in the four-disc format.
       So the Lips set to work on creating their most ridiculous project yet, the four-disc experiment billed as Zaireeka. It was eventually released to very little fanfare (which basically amounted to a handful of publications saying "lookit this thing, ain't it weird?!?") and then followed up by The Soft Bulletin, released to loads of fanfare. This overshadowing led to Zaireeka being slowly lost in the annals of time, becoming nothing more than a bizarre collector's item for diehard Flaming Lips fans and a minor footnote in the band's history.
       Or, at least, the album itself is minor -- the style that the band used on this album completely revolutionized their sound. They decided that the four-disc style wouldn't lend itself very well to their typical guitar-rock template, so they made a complete 180* turn into the world of...synthesizer-driven, art-rock songs. I'm guessing you can blame Steven for this, but really...who knows? Whatever the case, I'm glad they went down this path. I think they had plumbed the depths of noisy indie-rock for as far as long as they could. The band was definitely due for a change.
       And that, folks, is the entire story of Zaireeka. And, surprisingly, it actually kinda holds up to all of that hype and buildup. No, it's not their best album, but if you're interested I would highly recommend picking it up. It took me long enough -- I had already owned every other Lips album (well, other than Telepathic Surgery) for some time at the point when I finally bought it.  I had listened to several various mixes on the internet, but I hadn't actually gotten the full experience, so when I started on this page I decided that I'd best purchase myself a copy on eBay. For the record, you can actually find it fairly cheaply; you shouldn't have to pay more than 20 bucks, and it's well worth that price.
       At any rate, I have indeed listened to the album in its intended form -- all four CDs playing from four separate audio devices strung out across my basement. Of course, I didn't actually own four CD players so I ended up improvising. By the end of the evening, the only three actual "CD players" I could find were an old radio I hadn't used since the 90s, an alarm clock which had a CD player in it, and a boombox. Sadly, the boombox was cordless, and I was out of C batteries. Even more sadly, the alarm clock didn't even work. So I had to improvise. Firstly, I plugged in my laptop and turned on iTunes. I then burned a copy of the second disk onto my computer, which has a decent set of speakers. I then proceeded to put one of the discs on my iPhone, which I synched up via Bluetooth to a set of speakers I received for Christmas last year. I used the DVD player on my TV for the fourth and final disc.
       I tell this ridiculous story for a reason -- this album (particularly in this day and age when most music is accessed through smaller, more portable forms) is almost absurdly difficult to get into "working order". But, let's be honest...that's part of the appeal. I'm not gonna lie to you -- if you can get a group of similar minded friends together, combing your house to find insane ways to play crazy, awesome music can be pretty fun. And no matter how great the remixes are, I've never heard a single mixed version of any of these songs that sounds better than what you hear if you're listening to all four discs synched up at least semi-well. The effect created by this bizarre set-up is truly mind-blowing; calling it "surround sound" doesn't do it justice. It's like you're in the middle of the sound, like you're "conducting" it. You control the album. Are those high-pitched harmonies coming out of speaker #4 too overbearing? Turn 'em down! Wanna really feel the true intensity of Drozd's drumming right in your chest? Turn the CD with the drum track up as loud as it'll go!
       I mean, I completely understand why no one else would ever attempt something like this -- it's a logistical nightmare, I'm sure it's incredibly hard to make, and there isn't much of an audience for it. Still though, the sheer possibilities of this format are jaw-dropping. I've always kinda secretly wished that more of the tracks from Soft Bulletin had made their way onto here; the sheer power of something like "The Gash" or "What is the Light" attacking you from four sides would be...well, it'd be amazing.
       That's not to say that the tracks here aren't any good, most of them are! It's just that there are a few low points on here, and even the high points aren't nearly as majestic as those on The Soft Bulletin. Nevertheless, some of these songs are truly great -- my personal favorite just might be the absolutely heartbreaking "Thirty-Five Thousand Feet of Despair", a magnificent ballad about a pilot who commits suicide mid-flight. The song's climax is truly remarkable; hearing Wayne belt out "WHY IS IT SO HIGH?!? WHY IS IT SO MUCH?!?" over a sea of radar pings, trembling pianos, and soaring orchestral arrangements is a truly cathartic, ridiculously memorable experience. This is definitely one of those tracks that's greatly elevated (no pun intended) by the four-disc arrangement; the track isn't nearly as powerful if you don't feel truly surrounded and overtaken by the dense, heartbreaking sound effects and overdubs.
       The other major classic on the album is, just like everyone else says, the brilliant "Riding to Work in the Year 2025 (Your [sic] Invisible Now)". "2025" is essentially the band's take on an epic, multi-part progressive-rock song, and they certainly succeeded. From the chaotic, disorienting opening to the almost saccharinely beautiful (but still affecting) chorus, it's essentially a perfect track. Okay, maybe it's a bit too long, but the melodies, lyrics, and arrangements totally make up for it. (And aren't Michael's bass lines here just astounding?) I mean, if I were to have to come up with another flaw for the track, I might say that the band didn't utilize the four-disc concept well enough here (this is actually one of the few tracks that sounds almost as great in a remix version), but eh. It works fine.
       Another total winner is album closer "The Big 'Ol Bug is the New Baby Now", an attempt by Wayne to turn an incredibly dumb story about his puppies into a rousing gospel anthem. This was almost certainly the origination of that amazing choir imitation that the band eventually used in "The Gash". This track isn't quite as great as that one, but as silly as it is, it's still great. And how can you beat ending an album with what sounds like an army of rabid pit-bulls attacking you from four angles?
       I have mixed feelings about "How Will We Know?". You see, if you were to only listen to the second disk, you would be rewarded with a beautiful, uplifting 2-minute ditty with a fantastic melody and some wonderfully over-the-top horns. However, if you decide to listen to discs one, three, and four as well (which, let's be honest, is how you're "supposed to do it") you would be attacked by a series of ridiculously painful high frequencies, the kind of sounds that you play for your dog to make him stop barking at the mailman. It's completely unnecessary, and it's a stupid gimmick. But the actual song is good enough to make me not hate the track in itself. I guess that's the beauty of the album, though -- all you have to do is just turn the three disks with the high-pitched noises down until the next song rolls around.
       "A Machine in India" starts out as a decent acoustic piece; nothing spectacular, but certainly inoffensive. However, after the four-minute mark or so the track turns into a spectacular display of bad taste as the listener is subjected to 6 straight minutes of mind-numbing orchestral dissonance. I mean, I guess it's mildly interesting, and the way that the various sounds and noises are emitted from different speakers is kind of cool,, this thing shouldn't even come close to ten minutes. Even at four or five, it'd still be one of the weaker tracks on the album, but at 10? Eesh...
       I don't like "The Train Runs Over the Camel But is Derailed by the Gnat" either, despite its awesome title. This is yet another attempt by the band to disorient the listener with a load of various melodic ideas that don't fit together well at all. I mean, it's part of the whole "experiment" vibe of the album, I guess, but experimentation does not necessarily a good song make. And "The Train" is certainly not a good song. I suppose the intro is nice, but otherwise it just confuses, bores, and irritates me. No thank you.
       There's also a nice drum solo ("March of the Rotten Vegetables") and another disorienting bit of weirdness ("Okay I'll Admit I Really Don't Understand"), but that's pretty much the album. So, long story short -- should you buy it? Yes, yes you should. It's a fun collector's item, it's definitely worth the prices that you should be able to find it at, and the music itself is of a decent quality. Again, it's more of an experiment than an actual album, but if you're willing to put a little effort into it, I think you'll find it very rewarding. (And if you're looking for more info on the album's creation, Pitchfork's documentary about The Soft Bulletin contains lots of neat facts, interviews, and trivia about the Zaireeka sessions. I would highly recommend it if you're a Lips fan. You can find it here.)

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