Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Transmissions from the Satellite Heart -- The Flaming Lips -- Review

Transmission from the Satellite Heart (1993)
Rating: 14
"It's all a waste of time again..."
Best Song: Slow-Nerve-Action or Moth in the Incubator
Worst Song: No idea.

       Most people consider this to be the band's finest moment, and for a looooooong time, I didn't have the slightest idea why. This was my first pre-Bulletin Lips album, and it threw me for a major loop -- I couldn't see why AllMusic, John McFerrin, George Starostin, Cap'n Marvel, and even Rolling Stone considered this a classic. I forced myself to listen to it over and over, earnestly looking for something -- anything -- that I liked about it. And...I just couldn't do it. I remember listening to the album one time and thinking that I really liked "Be My Head", only to return to that song a few days later and find that I hated it. I also recall reading every positive review of the album over and over again, desperately trying to find out what I was missing, and all I could find were flatly positive statements like "Absolutely poptones!", "extremely accessible and wonderfully melodic!" and, most damningly, "If you buy this album and don't like it, well, early 90s Flaming Lips probably isn't for you". 
      "Come on Reagan, get a hold of yourself", I kept telling myself. "You've grown to love Can, Brian Eno, Radiohead, Bob Dylan -- all artists that at first listen you hated but eventually grew to love. You can conquer an accessible, semi-popular alt-rock album from 1993!" I also had similar issues with Embryonic (which was, ironically, the first Lips album I bought after this one), but even that one grew on me relatively quickly. This? Geez, it took me AT LEAST 7 or so listens to even begin to crack it, which I find rather hysterical. You see, this is viewed as their big "sell-out" album, the one that finally broke them into the mainstream and ensured their prolonged tenure at Warner Bros. Yet I still couldn't break into it. 
       Of course, I eventually did (although I didn't really enjoy it until after I had heard Clouds Taste Metallic, interestingly enough), and now I'm pretty much in total agreement with the critical consensus -- yes, this is most certainly their best pre-Soft Bulletin album. I know that some would argue for that spot belonging to Clouds, and even I think that Clouds has some better songs, but as far as a full, cohesive album is concerned, this has to be the best of their guitar-rock phase.
       So...why is that? What separates it so much from Priest Driven Ambulance and Hit to Death? Well, for starters, the band acquired Ronald Jones on lead guitar, thus relieving Wayne of having to replace Jonathan Donahue by recording excessive overdubs. Mr. Jones works fantastically here, filling the sound with loads of colorful fireworks that frequently boost decent songs into "great song" territory. Take "Oh My Pregnant Head". The song is essentially an overly drugged-out ballad (think "The Sun") with a near-irritating vocal melody (although the ethereal outro is quite nice), and on a basic level it's  a near-failure. However, Ronald keeps coming in throughout the song with these BRILLIANT guitar effects, and this is just enough to turn the song into something approaching greatness. I'm especially in love with that "*shhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhWUNGGGGG*" sound that keeps coming in right after every chorus. 
       But in addition to Ronald, the band also brought in a new drummer by the name, I forget....oh yeah -- STEVEN DROZD who essentially took over the band from this point onward. Yeah, Wayne was still the ring-leader, and he still decided the general direction the band would take (in addition to designing the artwork, writing the lyrics, and creating all of the band's general style), but as far as melodies and arrangement were concerned? Yup, Steven's your guy from here on out.
       Which, as far as I'm concerned, is a massive plus -- really, how many truly excellent melodies came before this album? I can count them on one hand: "Frogs", "Unconsciously Screamin'", "Talkin' 'Bout the Smilin' Deathporn Immortality Blues", "Five Stop Mother Superior Rain", and maybe "Love Yer Brain". Sure, there were some decent ones here and there, but as far as *great* ones? Yeah, that's about it. So if you're a fan of the melodies on this here album, Clouds Taste Metallic, The Soft Bulletin, or Yoshimi...thank Mr. Drozd (you may also thank him for his brilliant drumming).
       So before I finally tell you how much I love this album (and why), allow me to list my sole bit of irritation with the album that still lingers with me to this day...It takes a few tracks to really get going. I'm not sure why this is, and maybe it's just me, but it always takes me about four tracks before I feel like I'm listening to a truly great album. Sure, album opener "Turn It On" is a fun ode to the radio, but I've never found the melody as catchy as everyone else seemingly does. "Pilot Can at the Queer of God"? Again, lots of people love it, but it's easily among the two or three worst tracks on the album for me. The melody is decent, yeah, but I'm not too crazy about the constant repetition of that irritating "Oh gaaaaahd" line, and Wayne's voice (as well as the incessant guitar noise) actually irritates me a bit here. Meh. The third track is the afore-mentioned "Oh My Pregnant Head" which, as I said earlier, is just ok.
       Thankfully, song four is the band's big breakout hit "She Don't Use Jelly", which I am extremely fond of. It's catchy, the lyrics are fun, and the slide guitar breaks, while a little more atonal and noisy than I'd like, are still rather cool. And from here on out?...yeah, the album's absolutely perfect. Each song flows wonderfully into the next, they're all magnificent, and for me, it's pretty much alt-rock bliss.
       "Chewin' the Apple of Your Eye" has to be their greatest acoustic ballad ever (don't those angelic choirs at the end just lift your spirits like nothing else?), full of brilliant lyrics and a near-perfect vocal melody. And "Be My Head", well, that one's just a load of fun. Power-pop perfection, that's what it is -- the band whips out some of its trademarks (good 'ol guitar noise, pitch-altered voices) and provides an joyful, freewheeling classic. 
       I know some people don't care for "When Yer Twenty-Two" simply because it sounds eerily similar to "Halloween on the Barbary Coast" from the last album, but I dunno...I think I like this one better. Sure, I miss the epic, Middle-Eastern guitar line from the melody's previous incarnation, but this one's about half the length of "Barbary Coast", Wayne sounds way better, and it works perfectly as the album's penultimate track, so...yeah. Consider me a fan. (Those backwards drums are pretty wonderful too, as is the ending guitar solo.)
       But as great as those tracks are, none compare to the epic, three-part "Moth in the Incubator". It starts out as a decent ballad before startlingly lurching into what sounds like the opening of David Bowie's "Station to Station" being performed by a bunch of drunk circus performers on the noisiest guitars imaginable....and yet it works. Somehow. Plus, Wayne gives one of the greatest man-to-woman compliments I've ever heard in song -- "your incubator is so tight". Ah, what a romantic.
       But even that's not as great as the third section, where the band breaks out into what sounds like a RIDICULOUSLY triumphant Irish jig. It's gotta be one of the happiest, most wonderful moments in the band's entire catalog. I get put into a great mood every time I hear it.
       There's one more massive highlight in the album, though, and that's obviously the closing "Slow-Nerve-Action", one of the band's most beloved songs. And I must say, it's complete deserving of its constant praise -- Drozd's drum groove is the song's most complimented feature, but as great as that is...geez, everything about the track is just as good. The lumbering, anthemic guitar line, Wayne's thoughtful, clever lyrics, that brilliantly depressing vocal melody...and who could forget that instrumental break halfway through when a glockenspiel begins tinkling over a brilliant, jangly guitar solo. What a perfect closer.
       Yes, I love it now. I'm still not quite sure why I hated it so much in the beginning, but I think I do know why none of the reviews I read seemed very definite on their reasons for loving the album -- there's nothing *that* remarkable here. Everything is just a VERY finely tuned version of what's come before; this is nothing more than a perfected version of Hit to Death or Ambulance. It's nothing revolutionary, it's just incredibly solid and a load of fun, to boot. It's also very diverse, and as such it never gets boring. It's even got a MAGNIFICENT flow to it, which is truly saying something given its diversity. Yep, it's just a simple alt-pop/rock album...but what a simple alt-pop/rock album.

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