Shouts On Goal
"In order to be open to creativity, one must have the capacity for constructive use of solitude. One must overcome the fear of being alone."
St. Louis, it was short and sweet but you always show the love. Until next time. Springfield MO you’re up next! Tonight at the Outland Ballroom!
Hello music lovers. Thanks for stopping by for another installment of Normie Monday, my weekly blog posting that focuses on reviewing music, movies, television, books, or whatever may be capturing my attention at the time. After the last several weeks spent looking at some of the albums that made up the auditory framework of my college years, I thought I’d move backwards in time slightly and take a look at some of my favorite albums when I was in high school. My high school years saw me at the peak of my prog rock appreciation, and most of what I loved (and still love) about the genre was perfectly exemplified by the prog rock supergroup Transatlantic and their debut album, released in 2000, SMPT:e.
Transatlantic was originally formed in 1999 by Mike Portnoy, who was rising to considerable prominence at that time as the drummer for progressive metal group Dream Theater. Portnoy’s vision with this new group was to assemble some of the best and brightest names of the (relatively) contemporary prog rock scene to pay homage to the glory days of progressive rock. For Portnoy, this meant a significant toning down of the high speed riffing and hard-edged metal of Dream Theater for a sound that was all together more melodic and harmonious, though no less complex and adventurous.
His first contact was Neal Morse, singer/songwriter for an up-and-coming prog rock group entitled Spock’s Beard, whom had opened for Dream Theater during one of their then-recent tours. Portnoy had initially wanted to work with Fates Warning guitarist Jim Matheos, but when he proved unavailable, Morse made the next move by contacting Roine Stolt, guitarist for the Swedish prog rock outfit The Flower Kings, whom he had befriended when Spock’s Beard and The Flower Kings played a festival together. The bassist was the final piece needed, and the spot was eventually filled by Pete Trewavas, bassist for the English neo-prog group Marillion. When Portnoy’s powerhouse drumming was combined with Stolt’s adroit guitar playing, Trewavas’s melodically tasty bass lines and Morse’s expertly honed songcraft and warm vocals, the results wound up being completely out of this world.
Portnoy, Morse, Stolt and Trewavas first got together in Millbrook Studios in upstate New York in the summer of 1999 to bounce ideas off of each other and lay down some tracks. The basic tracks for all of the songs on their first album were completed in less than two weeks. Additional overdubs were undertaken by Morse and Stolt at their own respective private studios over the course of the rest of the summer and autumn. The original name for the group was going to be Second Nature, as this project was every member’s second commitment in line behind their main groups. However, the name was eventually changed to Transatlantic, due to the presence of two Americans and two Europeans in the lineup. Their first album was given the title of SMPT:e, a play on words combining an acronym of the band members’ last names (Stolt/Morse/Portnoy/Trewavas) with the name of a type of time code used in high end recording technology (SMPTE, itself and acronym that stands for Society of Motion Pictures and Television Engineers).
The music on SMPT:e showcases Neal Morse’s knack for writing unforgettable melodies that really worm their way into your subconscious until you find yourself humming them without even realizing it. He is also a master craftsmen when it comes to conceptually organizing these melodies and hooks into sprawling progressive rock suites that are at once epically over the top and perfectly structured. A perfect example of this is the album’s opening epic suite, given the umbrella title of “All Of The Above.” Although “All Of The Above” is indexed as one gigantic half-hour long track, it is really an expertly assembled melange of six different song ideas, deftly sewn together with the occasional recurring motif or theme to give the piece a feel of continuity.
“All Of The Above” opens with the first subsection, entitled “Full Moon Rising.” However, though it is not indexed as such, the first four or five minutes of “Full Moon Rising” really acts more as an “overture” for the rest of the suite, previewing themes and motifs that would see full fruition later on in the piece. It begins with an atmospheric swooshing sound, almost like that of a spaceship taking off, before the band launches into a hard-hitting descending unison riff punctuated by funky wah-wah guitar chords. After a bit of unison riffing, the band explores the funky wah-wah riff more fully, adding screaming organ and a driving rhythm section to the mix. Morse takes a fiery organ solo before the band introduces one of the song’s main musical themes, later to be heard in the “Half Alive” subsection. After bombastically stating the catchy melody on a buzzing synthesizer, the band drops down to only Portnoy’s powerful beat and Trewavas’s funky bass line, holding it down for a bit. The band then builds it back up with Stolt reentering first with some staccato guitar strums. Morse then begins playing a variation of the previously stated melody on the organ, which is eventually harmonized by a lead guitar. This section builds as the organ and guitar trade quick licks until the band smoothly slides into another one of the song’s main motifs, this one a soaringly beautiful melody on the lead guitar (to be heard later in the “Undying Love” subsection). This majestic moment is one of the highlights of the entire album, conjuring up feelings of standing on a mountain top with the wind rippling through your hair. The band then brings things down again to state the majestic melody more subtly until some choppy organ chords herald another shift in momentum, this time a quick charging riff that grows in power until it drops into a four-on-the-floor bass drum beat with an energetically strummed acoustic guitar playing an uplifting chord progression. This formally begins the “Full Moon Rising” subsection, with a synthesizer playing quick little melodies, often harmonized by either the bass or the guitar. After one more mellow section (you’ll notice lots of up-and-down dynamics on this album), the lyrics enter. While I wouldn’t call Neal Morse an excellent lyricist, the words aren’t anything that terribly offensive either, really just kind of a non-event. They’re just something to sing to keep the music from being instrumental. However, Morse has a wonderful voice; rich and warm with just enough edge to keep it interesting and an amazing sense of cadence and phrasing. He could sing just about anything and it would sound good. The “Full Moon Rising” subsection continues with a driving verse, followed by a melodically harmonized (though no less driving) chorus that ends with the band harmonizing the line, “Full moon rising today,” before undertaking a fast little melody played in unison by the keyboards, guitar and bass. Another verse, chorus and unison melody follows before a sudden shift to the next subsection.
This part, subtitled “October Winds,” begins by bringing the mood down, falling to a mellow piano and Morse’s soft voice before the rest of the band joins in again, gently at first before building back up to a powerful rock beat. Some churchy organ chords precede a spiraling synth melody that is soon joined in harmony by a lead guitar. The band keep on introducing and restating various melodies and motifs (some new, some restatements) until they fall into a funky jazz section. Portnoy and Trewavas provide a propulsive funk groove as Morse takes an impressive piano solo. Eventually, he switches to the organ and solos for a bit before Stolt enters to provide some searing guitar leads. The solos build to a crescendo before the band retreats to a theme and variation of one of the “Full Moon Rising” melodies from earlier. The band then returns to the main “October Winds” melody, an epically cinematic slow-burner. Morse wails emotionally the last verse of the section, ending with the proclamation that, “Maybe nothing matters anyway.”
The next subsection, “Camouflaged In Blue,” fades up as “October Winds” dies down. Trewavas begins picking out a moody bass line that forms the backbone of this section. The rest of the band adds some texturally atmospheric embellishments as Morse begins singing. The low point of the entire 30 minute song comes next, the chorus section. I don’t like how the moody verse (which I enjoy quite a bit) transitions to the perky chorus that (to me) almost has a bit of a Backstreet Boys kinda vibe. But (fortunately) it’s short, and it soon moves back to the moody second verse. I don’t find the second chorus to be as offensive as the first because it’s stated a bit more strongly, removing some of the pansy boy-bandish vibe. After the second chorus, the band jams out the verse for a bit, moving through some fluctuating time signatures and shifting meters until it becomes something different entirely. The guitar and organ take turns spinning out tasty licks and riffs that build in intensity until the band stops on a dime together and go into the next subsection.
You may recall the “Half Alive” motif from the earlier statement in the overture-ish section. Here, it is bombastically stated with a bit more force than before. Morse begins singing the lyrics that seem to be an urging for a friend to seek personal fulfillment, with the verses ending with the refrain of, “You look a man in full, but you’re half alive.” The band joins in with soaring harmonies for the last two words. A relatively brief section, it consists of only two quick verses with a quick tag at the end of the second one. This tag brings things down to a moody place once again, acting as a precursor to the next subsection.
“Undying Love” begins with gently strummed acoustic guitars and Morse singing in a hushed tone. The verses possess a certain melancholic vibe, but after two of them, we are brought into the uplifting chorus with the assertion that, “Innocence and undying love will reign.” After a couple of restatements of this line, the band falls back to a restatement of one of the overture themes (the one that I really like), but this time in a more subdued fashion than earlier, creating a sublimely moving moment of clarity. After another verse and chorus (in a slightly more bold fashion, including a nicely harmonized second chorus), the band begins a burbling buildup of frenzied notes, culminating in some frenzied drum fills. After this, Stolt takes another searing guitar solo until the band drops out on a dime to reveal a softly played piano and Morse gently singing, “Innocence and undying love will reign,” until the band picks things back up for the final subsection.
“Full Moon Rising (Reprise)” begins right on the last utterance of “…will reign,” with driving piano replacing the energetically strummed acoustic guitar from the first part. We are given another verse and chorus from the earlier “Full Moon Rising” section in an even more powerful fashion than before, ending with the line “Full moon rising today” being repeated in a round before one climactic accent from the band signals the final bombastic jam. The theme from the end of “October Winds” is revisited in a triumphantly exuberant fashion, with Roine Stolt really shining on a soaring guitar solo. The band milks the drama until the final orgasmic burst of energy, but wait, the song’s not over yet. There’s still about three minutes of textural atmospherics made up of spacey guitar melodies, twinkling percussion and rich keyboard washes that fade out to end the song on a dreamy note. Overall, the entire “All Of The Above” is one of the most perfectly composed and expertly constructed prog rock epics in the history of the genre, never feeling forced, unwieldy or boring.
After the progressive bombast of the previous epic composition, we are treated to the relative simplicity of the ballad “We All Need Some Light.” It begins with a pair of gentle twelve-string acoustic guitars strumming out chords and picking out melodies. Eventually, one of them settles into the rhythm mode while the other one begins picking out a repeating pattern in harmonics. As this progresses, the bass enters and begins playing a bit of melodic soloing until the vocals enter. The lyrics of this song talk about the evil and darkness in the world, but the choices that we all have to chose the light side of life. The chorus consists of the band harmonizing the line “We all need some light now” emotionally over a moving chord progression. After a couple of verses and choruses, the twin twelve-string acoustics take a harmonized solo before one final extended climactic chorus brings the song to its highest point. After the final chorus, the band brings things down in somewhat of a reverse fashion to the opening buildup, ending with a quietly strummed acoustic guitar chord.
Up next is another relatively short one, the hard-edged psychedelic rocker “Mystery Train.” It begins with a dissonant chord progression played simultaneously by acoustic guitar and wah-wah effected electric guitar. After a few times through, the band drops in heavily on a big downbeat, adding a pummeling rhythm section and crunchy organ chords. Eventually, the organ adds an odd sounding little melody before a quick bass riff leads into the meat of the song. One of the neater elements of this song is the strange juxtaposing rhythms attacking the listener from the left and right speaker channels. Portnoy overdubbed a series of busy skittering drum beats, then effected them to give them a strangely kinetic, almost industrial quality. After one dense, messily dissonant verse, the band moves into a more melodically conscious chorus with the band harmonizing, “Let the deal go down, ride that mystery train.” After one more verse (with some strangely disturbing imagery) and chorus, the band falls into a soaringly powerful bridge before an instrumental verse adds some noisy sound effects over the skittering drum beat. Another powerful bridge follows before the band goes back to another verse and chorus, after which the song ends with a big climactic jamming out of the chorus progression and a big garble of psychedelic noises.
We are brought back to the world of the extended prog rock epics with the next track, the sixteen minute “My New World.” Whereas Neal Morse was the main compositional force behind the rest of the album, this song is actually more from the mind of Roine Stolt, and the difference in songwriting style is easily apparent. It begins with a very classical-inspired intro, complete with baroque piano figure and string accompaniment. After the piano and strings state the main melody, it is repeated and modified by the band, replacing the strings with the electric guitar and adding the rhythm section. As this winds down, the song dissolves into a bouncy Beatlesque piano figure. Roine takes the lead vocals in this song, and his voice has a decidedly gruffer quality than Morse’s smooth tenor. The lyrics seem to tell the tale of a pair of young lovers that are torn apart by war, with the boy going off to fight and the girl staying back and becoming a hippie. When he returns from war, he’s surprised to find how much (including the girl) has changed.
The music in this song moves through several different feels and sections, starting with the bouncy piano verse before moving to the smoothy harmonized chorus (which sees Morse returning to the lead vocal position). After two verses and choruses, we get some fiery instrumental interplay with the guitar and keyboards trading solos as the rhythm section rages. This all culminates with some bombastic proggy accents (complete with tubular bells) before the band falls back to some spacey atmospherics. Out of this, rises a gorgeously spacious middle section with Morse laying down a gentle piano figure and singing a touching melody. This section is the highlight of the song for me, ending with Morse singing, “My new world waits patiently when living is lost in a memory. My new world is ahead of me, but sometimes I’m back where I used to be.”
After this sublimely moving section, the band picks things back up for a surging organ solo that ends with some ferocious unison riffing from the band. This transitions to a ripping guitar solo from Stolt. This transitions into another new section that has a fast jazzy feel with more lead vocals from Roine Stolt, who also takes a tasty jazz guitar solo at the end. More unison riffing and hairpin turns follow this, leading to the climactic last verse (actually a restatement of the bridge motif) and the final chorus. This last chorus takes us to the end of the song, ending with a big gradual decelerando that gives way to a wash of atmospheric noise, segueing into the final song.
The album ends with a cover of Procol Harum’s “In Held ‘Twas In I,” a song from their 1968 Shine On Brightly album, widely considered to be one of the first true progressive rock epic suites, hence it’s inclusion on an album that was made as an homage to prog rock epic suites. It begins with a long piece of prose, read by Pete Trewavas (at least I’m guessing it’s him, given the British accent) over an atmospheric backdrop of psychedelic noise. The prose has to do with the meaning of life, with the final line being the Dalai Lama saying, “Well, my son, life is like a beanstalk, isn’t it?”
Immediately after this, the band launches into a bit of rapid fire riffing with the melodic instruments climbing up an ascending scale as the drums hammer out a propulsive groove. This continues for a bit, occasionally broken up by a cheeky little descending melody, until the band falls into a slower, moodier chord progression with harmonized guitar leads. This chord progression backs off in intensity even more until it reaches a level of morose melancholia, after which the vocals enter. The band takes turns singing the lead vocals, starting with Morse, then moving to Trewavas, then to Stolt, and I think there might be some Portnoy in there somewhere too, but I’m not sure.
The song moves through some intense musical change-ups, including a section in the middle where it seems to completely break down amidst a flurry of psychedelic noises. It ends with a triumphant section that alternates between a melancholic verse and a soaring chorus, followed by a “Grand Finale” that very closely resembles “God Save The Queen.” One thing that Procol Harum was always known for was approximating well known classical pieces into their rock songs (another example is their stealing of Bach’s “Ich steh mit einem Fuß im Grabe, BWV 156” in “A Whiter Shade Of Pale.”) The song (and album) ends with one final climactic build up of energy, followed by a monsterous drum roll and final crash.
Transatlantic’s SMPT:e was released in March of 2000 to enthusiastic reviews from the prog rock world, but (like most modern prog rock) didn’t manage to do much in the charts. Transatlantic managed to go on one small U.S. tour before the four individual members went back to their day jobs. However, they have reconveined three more times since, resulting in 2001’s Bridge Across Forever, 2009’s The Whirlwind and their upcoming release, 2014’s Kaleidoscope. Indeed, the tenures of Mike Portnoy and Neal Morse in Transatlantic have outlasted their tenures in their main bands, as Portnoy quit Dream Theater in 2010 and Morse quit Spock’s Beard in 2002.
While their ensuing albums have been good (but admittedly, I haven’t heard Kaleidoscope yet), none of them match the sheer grandeur and majesty of SMPT:e. If you are a fan of the glory days of progressive rock (by that, I mean 1967-1973) and you have a taste for the more musically melodic and strictly composed side of prog rock (by that, I mean King Crimson fans might want to steer clear), you would be doing yourself a favor by checking out this superbly constructed album. There are flashes of Yes, Genesis, Jethro Tull, Pink Floyd, Abbey Road-era Beatles and Procol Harum (obviously), but the result is something wholy original and uniformly excellent. I couldn’t recommend this album any more highly. Give it a listen, see what you think.
You can listen to the entire album here: http://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL26h-e6UmSZ9XbiTOc02V9xR291RHvesV
Welcome back music lovers. Thanks for stopping by for another installment of Normie Monday, my weekly blog posting that focuses on reviewing music, movies, television, books, or whatever may be capturing my attention at the time. After four weeks dedicated towards discussing some of the albums that meant the most to me during my college years, I thought I’d wrap up that series with a look at an album that was pretty much my constant companion during the final year (or so) of my schooling; The Decemberists’ 2005 masterpiece Picaresque.
The Decemberists formed in 2000 after singer/songwriter Colin Meloy moved to Portland, Oregon from Missoula, Montana, where he had just graduated from the University of Montana with a degree in creative writing. Meloy had been in a band in Missoula called Tarkio that had released a couple of EP’s and a full length album in the late 90’s. Despite cultivating a relatively sizable regional following, Tarkio fell apart following Meloy’s graduation and relocation to Portland. In Portland, Meloy began working the open mic circuit where he eventually met keyboardist Jenny Conlee and bassist Nate Query (who had previously been in a band together called Calobo). Conlee and Query, impressed by Meloy’s unique brand of songcraft, agreed to join up for a band, which Meloy named The Decemberists after the 1825 Decemberists revolt of Imperial Russia. The trio quickly added drummer Ezra Holbrook, and guitarist/multi-instrumentalist Chris Funk (who had been a fan of Tarkio) was drafted in to provide pedal-steel guitar, though he would not become an official member of the band for several years.
The Decemberists’ first official release was a self-released six song EP entitled (ironically) 5 Songs, released in 2001. This was quickly followed up by their first full-length album, 2002’s Castaways And Cutouts, released on Hush Records. These first two releases introduced the indie rock world to Meloy’s knack for writing songs that pair deeply involving storylines with universal themes and occasionally gruesome imagery, drawing inspiration from epic European folk ballads and rural American storytelling. These intricate lyrics are set against music that recalls everything from folk music to 80’s alternative rock to alt-country to progressive rock to punk to shoegaze rock.
By the time of their second full-length album, 2003’s Her Majesty The Decemberists, the band had signed to the Canadian record label Kill Rock Stars, guitarist Chris Funk had become a full-time band member, Ezra Holbrook had been replaced on drums by Rachel Blumberg and Nate Query had been (temporarily) replaced on bass by Jesse Emerson. Query would return to the fold, however, in time for The Decemberists’ 2004 EP The Tain, which consisted of a single 18+ minute epic song based on Táin Bó Cúailnge, an ancient Irish mythological epic tale. The same lineup of Colin Meloy, Jenny Conlee, Chris Funk, Nate Query and Rachel Blumberg then began recording their third full-length album in August of 2004 at the Prescott Church in northeast Portland, with sessions being completed in under a month.
Joining the band at the Prescott Church was producer Chris Walla (guitarist of Death Cab For Cutie), who had previously produced the band during the sessions for The Tain. Also, singer/songwriter/violinist Petra Haden contributed to the recording sessions, providing violin and background vocals to several songs (if you haven’t heard Haden’s all a cappella remake of The Who Sell Out, I advise you to check that out immediately as well). The album was eventually titled Picaresque, an old form of Spanish satirical prose that usually dealt in the humorous stories of lower class roguish heroes.
The album opens with “The Infanta,” which itself opens with the sound of a howling coyote. After a few long banshee wails, the drums fade up playing a galloping tribal beat on the toms. After a quick break, the band enters with driving acoustic guitar strumming, churning electric guitar power chords and rocking Hammond organ. Meloy begins to sing the lyrics about what appears to be a messianic child of some sort and the entourage of bowers and scrappers that follows her. As per the norm with Meloy’s lyrics, there are many levels to them. The song may in fact be a satire of the adoration given to talentless socialites (think Paris Hilton) who seem to be fawned upon simply as a right of birth. After a couple of verses (which all end with the refrain of, “And we’ll all come praise the infanta,”) the band engages in a bombastic bit of synchronized riffing with the violin, piano, electric guitar and organ all harmonizing on a big cinematic melody, one of the high points of the song. This bit leads to a key change for the third verse, after which the band decelerandos into a broken down bridge of only sparsely strummed acoustic guitar and harmonized vocals. After the bridge, we get one final verse where we learn that the infanta herself dreams of a simpler, quieter life where she’s not constantly being followed around. After some extended repeating of the refrain, the song ends with a climactic build up from the band with some operatic tenor singing from Eric Stern soaring over the top of it.
Up next is one of my personal favorite songs on the album, the melodramatic “We Both Go Down Together.” Musically, it bears more than a passing resemblance to R.E.M.’s “Losing My Religion,” sharing that song’s odd mix of soaring melancholia and upbeat rhythms. However, the lyrics of this song are simply genius, making great use of the literary device of the “unreliable narrator.” On the surface, the lyrics seem to tell a Romeo And Juliet inspired tale of star-crossed lovers, that of a rich young man (the narrator) and his lover, a young girl from the lower class. At the end of the story, the two commit a double-suicide because (as the narrator puts it), “Our parents will never consent to this love.” However, upon closer inspection of the lyrics, it seems to me that the story is actually one of a delusional young man (one who’s been spoiled by a lifetime of wealth) who rapes a poor young girl and then kills her and himself, only wrongly believing that their story has the romantic qualities that he envisions. The key line for this interpretation is when the narrator sings, “You wept, but your soul was willing,” which I liken to when rapists use the argument that, “She was asking for it.” Viewing the song from this dark place lends the song a creepy, almost uncomfortable vibe, but maybe I’m reading too much into it.
Another easy favorite of mine comes next, the folksy ghost story “Eli The Barrow Boy.” The music consists mostly of the sad strumming of Meloy’s acoustic guitar and the thin, reedy pad of Conlee’s accordion. The lyrics tell the tragic tale of a poor street urchin named Eli who pushes a cart trying to sell various goods, such as coal, marigolds, corncobs and candle wax. In the chorus, we learn that Eli once had a lover, but she died and he was not able to afford a nice dress to bury her in. At the end of the song, Eli himself dies from drowning (possibly by his own hand). However, his spirit remains restless, and his ghost still roams the streets trying to raise enough money to buy a fine gown for his deceased love. This song is a perfect example of how Colin Meloy can construct simple, poignant stories that are very specific in their details, but are easily applicable to other situations that anyone else might find themselves in.
“The Sporting Life” comes next, and it’s one of the low points on the album, in my opinion. The music features a buoyant rhythm (somewhat of a “Bo Diddley” beat) and perky melody that never really amounts to anything that interesting to me. However, once again, the lyrics are great, telling the story of a high school athlete who has an epiphany about the direction of his life after sustaining a big hit on the field. He realizes that he’s been a vessel through which his father has been vicariously living his life of sporting accomplishments. We are led to believe that the narrator is intent on pursuing his own way in life at the conclusion of this song.
Up next is the epically cinematic “The Bagman’s Gambit,” another personal favorite of mine. The complex and involving tale of espionage and governmental secrecy is backed by a dynamic arrangement that begins with a quietly strummed acoustic guitar and Meloy’s plaintive voice. After two verses of only acoustic guitar and vocals, the band crashes in big for the downbeat of the chorus, instantly transforming the song into a surging, bombastic rocker. The formula is then repeated; quiet verse and loud chorus, which is then followed by an orgasmic buildup of intense waves of noise as the acoustic guitar strum out aggressive washes of chords, the electric guitars feedback, the cymbals crash manically and the organ squeals dissonantly. The noisy freakout ends suddenly, only to leave us with a brief reprise of the quiet verse figure, ending the song. The lyrics tell the tale of a government official who is seduced by a spy and tricked into giving away state secrets. The spy is then captured, but the narrator can’t bear to see her tortured and/or executed, so he sees that she is released even though he knows that she never really cared for him. The narrator then lives the rest of his life thinking that he might see her around every corner.
The atmospheric “From My Own True Love (Lost At Sea)” is up next, another major highlight of the album for me. It begins with Meloy gently strumming out a slow, mournful acoustic guitar passage as a heavily reverbed kick drum softly keeps a dim, distant beat. The sound of wind and rain delicately plays in the background, creating a spaciously spectral atmosphere. Meloy sings the simple verses about a poor woman who is waiting faithfully and unflinchingly for the postman to bring her news of her long lost love’s whereabouts. Once again, Meloy deftly wields the “unreliable narrator” tactic, as we are led to believe that the narrator’s love died in a shipwreck, but she delusionally clings to a belief that he is still alive and will send her a letter. The music is punctuated by a melancholic melody after the verses, played in unison by an accordion and a hammered dulcimer. This short, but effective, song is one of the more texturally amazing moments on the album.
Up next is one of the best known songs on the album, the jovial “Sixteen Military Wives.” This was the only official single released from Picaresque, and it was made into a Wes Anderson-inspired music video about a school’s model UN. The song begins with a bouncy electric piano and acoustic guitar strumming out an uptempo rhythm as Meloy begins to sing lyrics that seem to be in protest of the Iraq War. But more so than a direct criticism of American foreign policy, it is ripping on mainstream media’s treatment of the war coverage and the vacant, ill-informed views of celebrities and entertainers when it comes to politics. However, apart from the serious message of the lyrics, this song is just plain fun. The music rocks, jumps and grooves, and it’s genuinely funny when Meloy hits the refrain of, “And the anchorperson on TV goes, ‘La de da de da.’” This song also features a powerful horn section that builds to a climactic conclusion with the horns wailing emotively as the rhythm section crashes bombastically.
The album enters a bit of a lull here with two of the more forgettable tracks in a row. The better of the two comes first, the mid-tempo “The Engine Driver.” The lyrics seem to examine the occupational lineages that persist in America, with Meloy appearing to claim that perhaps America isn’t the “land of the free” that it’s cracked up to be. People who are truck drivers will have children who grow up to be truck drivers, people who are billionaire bankers will have children who grow up to be billionaire bankers. This is only my interpretation of the lyrics, but they are some of the more vague on the album. The music has a tinge of country that perfectly suits the song about growing up to be a truck driver, just like Daddy.
Probably my least favorite song on the album comes next, the largely forgettable “On The Bus Mall.” The song takes a somewhat jaded look at the life of two gay teenage prostitutes, turning tricks in bus stations and barrooms, living in seedy motels and getting hopped up on pills. While the lyrics are interesting and strike at a serious, emotional subject, the music never really goes anywhere. Also, at over six minutes, this song is just too long.
However, what may be The Decemberists’ signature song is up next, “The Mariner’s Revenge Song.” One of the best stories that Colin Meloy ever wove, it tells the stirring drama of a boy who has sworn to his mother on her deathbed that he will seek revenge on the man who married her and then left her with only his gambling debts and diseases to remember him by. The mother’s dying words are, “Find him, bind him, tie him to a poll and break his fingers to splinters. Drag him to a hole until he wakes up, naked, clawing at the ceiling of his grave.” Musically, the song is fairly simple, featuring only Meloy’s acoustic guitar, Funk’s mandolin, Conlee’s accordion, Query’s upright bass and some simple time-keeping percussion from Blumberg. Supposedly, the band recorded the entire song live in one take. It is a bouncing two-step sea shanty, more closely resembling English and Irish folk songs than anything else on the album. My favorite part of the song musically is when it enters a swaying waltz after the bridge, effortlessly calling to mind the rocking of a ship at sea.
In the story, after the boy’s mother dies, he becomes a street urchin. After becoming a young man, he hears of a shipping captain that matches the description of his revenge target and goes to sea to find him. As he is closing in on him, a whale destroys both of their ships and swallows both of them, the only two survivors of the attack. In the whale’s stomach, the young man tells the target of his revenge his reason for wanting to kill him and proceeds to do so. The epic nature of this song led to it becoming a live favorite for the band, often working in audience participation where a member of the road crew would come out on stage in a whale costume and pretend to eat the band. Then, they would pretend to eat the audience, with the audience instructed to scream as loudly and brutally as they could. The song ends with a big climactic build up as the band continually picks up the tempo until they’re playing at a fever pitch.
The album ends with the delicate, broken down quality of the brief “Of Angels And Angles.” Featuring only Meloy’s unaccompanied acoustic guitar and voice, the lyrics are more impressionistic than the typically direct storytelling that Meloy is known for. It seems to paint a picture of boring everyday life in a not-so-glamorous light. I enjoy the simple guitar playing and emotive vocal melody of this song, and I like how it ends the album on a humble note after the epic “The Mariner’s Revenge Song.”
Picaresque was released in March of 2005 on the Kill Rock Stars record label. It managed to give The Decemberists their first appearance in the Billboard Top 200 chart, peaking at #128. It also managed to generate sufficient enough buzz to interest major labels. The Decemberists signed to Capitol Records at the end of 2005, and have released three more full-length albums on that label; 2006’s The Crane Wife, 2009’s The Hazards Of Love and 2011’s The King Is Dead. Each album has fared better in the charts than the previous, culminating in the chart topping The King Is Dead. Shortly after the release of that album, the band announced that keyboardist Jenny Conlee was fighting breast cancer and that she would be missing the rest of their tour dates. After the tour, The Decemberists decided to take a three or four year hiatus to recuperate and let Conlee regain her health. Meloy has recently stated that the band may begin work on a new album soon.
In summary, if you like lyrics that tell a story, then The Decemberists’ Picaresque is the perfect album for you. Meloy is a master craftsman of lyrics that deftly portray the emotions present in a certain situation and can convey them in a way that is easily transferable to one’s own experiences. Additionally, his lyrics contain several layers of meanings and are open to many levels of interpretation. The rest of the band do an excellent job of creating music that has the ebb and flow of a fine piece of cinema. Really, the music can almost paint as vivid of a picture as the lyrics themselves can. I feel that Picaresque is the perfect place to get started if you are new to The Decemberists (as it is where I started). I feel that it more fully encapsulates everything that makes The Decemberists special than any other of their albums. If you enjoy this one, move on the The Crane Wife and then Her Majesty The Decemberists. Then, when you think you’re ready for it, charge headlong into the heady, surreal rock opera The Hazards Of Love. However, I always seem to come back to Picaresque as my favorite from them, an album that has continually meant a great deal to me over the years. Give it a listen, see what you think.
You can listen to the entire album here: http://open.spotify.com/album/4pFJNfXVsVD1PMJhfuZ9ET
Last night’s turned the scenery into something magical. And E answers a very important question.
Welcome back music lovers. Thanks for stopping by for another installment of Normie Monday, my weekly blog posting that focuses on reviewing music, movies, television, books, or whatever may be capturing my attention at the time. For the past several weeks, I’ve been focusing on the albums that meant the most to me during my college years, spanning the years 2002 to 2007. One of my favorite bands during this period, The Mars Volta, was introduced to me by my roommate Phil. I immediately fell in love with their debut album upon first listen and bought their sophomore effort (the focus of this week’s article) on the day that it came out; 2005’s twisted, cerebral concept album Frances The Mute.
The Mars Volta was formed by guitarist Omar Rodríguez-López and vocalist/lyricist Cedric Bixler-Zavala after the 2001 breakup of the duo’s previous band, the El Paso-based hardcore punk band At The Drive In. Before their breakup, At The Drive In had just started to receive some mainstream success with their final album, 2000’s Relationship Of Command (which contained the minor hit single “One Armed Scissors”). Rodríguez-López and Bixler-Zavala had wanted to take the group in more of a psychedelic and progressive direction, which the other three members of the group did not agree with. While the remainder of the group (guitarist Jim Ward, bassist Paul Hinojos and drummer Tony Hajjar) formed the relatively bland Sparta, Rodríguez-López and Bixler-Zavala formed the experimental and genre-defying The Mars Volta.
The Mars Volta grew out of Rodríguez-López’s and Bixler-Zavala’s side project, a dub-reggae band called De Facto (who released three albums and one EP while At The Drive In were still active), which featured Rodríguez-López on bass, Bixler-Zavala on drums, Isaiah “Ikey” Owens on keyboards and Jeremy Ward on vocals and sound manipulations. After At The Drive In imploded, Rodríguez-López and Bixler-Zavala brought Owens and Ward into their new band, with the previous two returning to their main instruments of guitar and vocals (respectively). The four were joined by Eva Gardner on bass and Blake Fleming on drums (though Fleming was quickly replaced by Jon Theodore). This lineup of Rodríguez-López, Bixler-Zavala, Owens, Ward, Gardner and Theodore played the first shows as The Mars Volta and recorded the band’s debut three-track EP, 2002’s Tremulant.
While Tremulant definitely carried over some of the punk leanings of At The Drive In, it also showcased a budding maturation in the songwriting of Rodríguez-López and Bixler-Zavala, featuring tricky time signatures and a more refined melodicism than was typical for At The Drive In. By the time of the recording sessions for the group’s debut full-length album, bassist Eva Gardner had quit. Instead of finding a full-time replacement, the band chose to utilize their friend Flea (of the Red Hot Chili Peppers) to record the album, which was released in 2003 as De-Loused In The Comatorium. This album is a heady concept piece about the dreams and visions of a man in a coma after a deliberate drug overdose. The story is based on that of Rodríguez-López’s and Bixler-Zavala’s friend Julio Venegas, an El Paso artist that tried to kill himself with a drug overdose, only to fail and eventually throw himself off of a bridge. De-Loused In The Comatorium became a surprise hit for the band, reaching #39 in the Billboard Top 200 chart, garnering much critical acclaim and introducing the band to a wider audience. The group recruited full-time bassist Juan Alderete (formerly of the speed metal band Racer X) and percussionist Marcel Rodríguez-López (Omar’s younger brother) and went on tour opening for their friends the Red Hot Chili Peppers to support the album.
Tragically, sound manipulator Jeremy Ward died of a heroin overdose in May of 2003, before the album even came out. This proved to be a life-changing event for Rodríguez-López and Bixler-Zavala, who quit using opioids due to Ward’s death. When it came time to write and record the followup to their critically lauded debut, Bixler-Zavala chose to focus on writing lyrics that were inspired by a journal that had been found in a car by Jeremy Ward while he was working as a repo man. The journal was from a man who was an orphan and had been looking for his birth parents. Ward, an orphan himself, found himself immediately drawn to the material in the journal, and when he died, Bixler-Zavala decided to create a concept album about the journal as a tribute to him.
The music of the new album, which was eventually titled Frances The Mute, found Rodríguez-López really stepping up as a composer and arranger. The music was written almost solely by him, and instead of recording the album in the traditional method, where everybody in the band learns their parts and rehearses them together, Rodríguez-López chose to employ a decidedly different tactic. All of the musicians on the album learned their parts individually of the rest of the group and then recorded them to a metronome without knowing the overall context in which their part was meant to reside (the only exception to this is a length jam section in the middle of one song). Drummer Jon Theodore and bassist Juan Alderete responded well to this method, but keyboardist Ikey Owens reportedly hated it.
The recording sessions for Frances The Mute also featured several notable guest musicians. Flea returned, this time adding trumpet to two tracks, and Red Hot Chili Peppers’ guitarist John Frusciante contributed guitar solos to one track as well. Famed salsa pianist Larry Harlow (one of Rodríguez-López’s childhood heroes) makes a special appearance on two songs and Puerto Rican studio musician Lenny Castro adds percussion to all of the tracks. Roger Joseph Manning Jr. (formerly the keyboardist in the 90’s pop rock outfit Jellyfish) contributes some piano as well, and the album received some tasty string and horn arrangements from noted composer David Campbell (father of alternative rock artist Beck Hansen). Lastly, reedsman Adrián Terrazas-González played some saxophone and flute on one track. He would go on to join The Mars Volta as a full-time member beginning with the tour for this album.
Frances The Mute begins with the thirteen minute epic “Cygnus….Vismund Cygnus,” which introduces us to the story’s main protagonist and sets the mood for the rest of the album. The first section is subtitled “Sarcophagi,” and it features a lo-fi sounding acoustic guitar, as if it’s coming out of a radio, strumming out a macabre chord progression. Eventually, Bixler-Zavala joins in singing, “The ocean floor is hidden from your viewing lens, a depth perception languished in the night.” I won’t get too into the symbolism and meanings behind the lyrics (because this article would end up being 30 pages long if I did), but suffice it to say that every line is packed with meaning and significance. Basically, what we learn from this first song is that Vismund Cygnus grew up in a strict (and possibly abusive) orphanage and, as a teenager, discovered some clues that pertain to his birth parents. He is determined to find out what happened to them, and to himself.
After the short acoustic “Sarcophagi” introductory section, the band erupts into the next section, the hard rocking “Umbilical Syllables.” The rhythm section begins pounding out a frenetic beat as Rodríguez-López’s guitar manically plucks out a jaggedly dissonant melody and Bixler-Zavala sings Spanish lyrics in his powerful alto register. As Bixler-Zavala switches over to English, the group settles on the basic verse pattern, which ends with Rodríguez-López and Alderete playing a riff in unison before the drums drop out, only to come back in to accent some tricky, off-center beats with the bass as Bixler-Zavala sings, “Sangre, sonando, de rabia naci.” Another verse comes next, which ends with Bixler-Zavala singing in Queen-like harmony, “Who do you trust?” as the band charges headlong into the chorus, another swirling melange of crunching riffs and driving rhythms. Another verse/chorus section follows before the band drops into a quick bit of chaotically shifting meters and dissonant riffs.
The next section, subtitled “Facilis Descernus Averni,” begins with the band playing a riff that features a measure of 5/4, followed by a measure of 6/4, followed by a measure of 4/4. The band plays uptempo for a while with Bixler-Zavala’s singing until the music dissolves into a sea of swirling psychedelic noises, feedback and electronic pulses. Out of this, rises the bass and drums softly restating the 5/4, 6/4, 4/4 beat from earlier. Eventually, Rodríguez-López begins to solo, quietly at first, but picking up momentum as the rhythm section begins to crescendo. The guitar solo ends with Rodríguez-López repeating a two-note slide on which he overdubs a series of other two-note slides that create dissonant harmonies that build up and up until the band erupts climactically and Bixler-Zavala’s vocals return. Joining the vocals are some soaring string and horn orchestrations, adding to the cinematic feeling of this section, which ends with another psychedelic wall of noise. A sudden drop out signals the return of the harmonized “Who do you trust?” line, and the band gives us one more chorus from the earlier section.
The last section of the song is subtitled “Con Safo.” It’s a short section with a 5/4 groove, featuring some breakneck fills from Theodore. It fades out as a field recording from a Mexican village fades up (with some electronic throbbing in the background), taking up the track’s last three minutes.
The next track, “The Widow,” was the first single released from the album, reaching #95 on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100 chart (their only single to chart there). It begins with Bixler-Zavala singing, “He’s got fasting black lungs made of clove splintered shards,” over a melancholic finger-picked acoustic guitar. The band explodes into the chorus with a sludgy, stomping, Zeppelin-esque groove as Bixler-Zavala’s vocals enter an impossibly high register. The lyrics of this song seem to be about Vismund’s encounter with a drug dealer that holds some key to his past, but this encounter has the unwanted effect of getting Vismund hooked on heroin (heroin addiction being another key theme of the album). After a couple of verses and choruses, we are given a middle section that features a cinematic trumpet line (played by Flea) that has somewhat of a Spaghetti Western feel. Rodríguez-López takes a ripping guitar solo, trading guitar lines with Bixler-Zavala’s vocal lines before another set of choruses signals the end of the song proper, by far the shortest song on the album. The track ends with a three minute soundscape of spastic, electronically treated organ noises that were taken off for the single edit.
The next track, “L’Via L’Viaquez,” fades up as the organ spasms from the previous track fade out. It begins with a quiet drum beat from Theodore being played in reverse before the band launches into a driving salsa-influenced beat and John Frusciante makes his first appearance on the album, turning in a spiraling guitar solo. After the solo, Bixler-Zavala begins singing in Spanish about the ongoing pursuit of his family and the people that he meets along the way that help him. After a couple of verses in Spanish, the band drops into a mellow chorus with a Latin groove, featuring salsa piano from Larry Harlow, over which Bixler-Zavala sings in English, culminating in his assertion that, “I won’t forget who I’m looking for.” After this, a quick swish of psychedelic noise signals the return of the verse section, over which Frusciante takes another dizzying guitar solo before Bixler-Zavala returns to the Spanish lyrics. After another mellow Latin chorus, the band erupts back up again as Rodríguez-López takes a searing guitar solo (honestly, I prefer his solo to Frusciante’s solos) before Bixler-Zavala begins singing more Spanish lyrics with a new melody that recalls Mexican folk songs. After this high-octane “bridge” (as we’ll call it), the band falls back to the mellow Latin chorus, but this time, the mellow salsa groove is extended to feature a tasty piano solo from Larry Harlow. This gives way to Harlow and Rodríguez-López trading solos over the final few minutes of the song, which ends with Bixler-Zavala repeating the chorus lyrics with a robotic effect on his voice. This track was released as the second single from the album, edited down from its original twelve minutes to a mere five minutes.
The next track, “Miranda That Ghost Just Isn’t Holy Anymore,” is probably the most controversial song on the album due to its length sections of quiet noise. Many fans of the band’s first album dismissed this track upon the album’s release, but it is personally one of my favorites. It begins with about four minutes of a field recording of the chirping of the coquí (a type of Puerto Rican frog). As this four minutes (subtitled “Vade Mecum”) progresses, swirling dissonant psychedelic noises slowly fade up and are added to the coquí chirping, resembling the middle section of Pink Floyd’s “Echoes.” After the four minute mark, when the psychedelic noises peak, an acoustic guiar strums out some dramatic chords, then begins slowly arpeggiating a sad melody as the trumpets (again played by Flea) begin playing a mournful Spaghetti Western melody.
The next subsection, subtitled “Pour Another Icepick,” begins with the acoustic guitar and trumpets. Bixler-Zavala begins singing in a mellow voice about the circumstances of his parents’ fate. He seems to hint at some sort of conspiracy or shadowy wrong doings that led to him being orphaned. In the chorus he sings, “And when Miranda sang, everyone turned away. Used to the noose, they obey.” Two verses and choruses are delivered in a mellow melancholy fragile finger-picked acoustic guitar, psychedelically effected electric guitar, mournful trumpet lines and atmospheric keyboards. The rhythm section kicks in for the last chorus, ending this section on a high note before the band fades out.
The third subsection, entitled “Pisacis (Phra-Men-Ma),” is a short section of spacey guitar lines, jazzy trumpet melodies and atmospheric keyboard washes before the fourth and final subsection, a restatement of the “Con Safo” section from earlier in “Cygnus….Vismund Cygnus.” The charging 5/4 groove slowly fades up, but remains fairly quiet with solumn Mellotron chords creating an emotive feel. This goes for the last minute-and-a-half of the song, quietly grooving along until…
BAM!!! The band suddenly explodes into the introduction of the next song, the album’s closing track, “Cassandra Gemini.” One of my favorite moments on the entire album is the transition between these two songs. I love how the quiet moodiness of the soft 5/4 groove is violently interrupted right in the middle of a measure by the frantic opening of this song, causing the listener to jump a little. I enjoy when music can have such a visceral effect on the listener. Anyway, I digress, “Cassandra Gemini” is the epic to end all epics, over half an hour long and featuring five subsections. The band had originally meant to release the album as a five track album with this song being the final 32 minute fifth track, but Universal Records (the parent company of Gold Standard Laboratories, of which Rodríguez-López is a co-owner) wanted to credit the album as being an EP due to it only having five tracks (never mind that the album runs a whopping 77 minutes). To resolve this issue, Rodríguez-López and Bixler-Zavala arbitrarily split this 32 minute behemith into 8 tracks, not representative of the actual five subsection.
The first section, entitled “Tarantism,” begins with a frantically dissonant guitar riff, over which the rhythm section plays a tricky syncopated riff with odd accents. Over this, Bixler-Zavala repeatedly wails, “I think I’ve become like one of the others,” between fiery guitar fills from Rodríguez-López. Although the subdivisions are not really indexed, I see the “Tarantism” section as being only the first 40 seconds of the song.
After a quick drop out from everyone, the band surges into the second subsection, entitled “Plant A Nail In The Navel Stream.” It cools down a bit after the frenzied “Tarantism,” featuring a groovy beat, gently strummed electric guitar chords and flitting flute from Adrián Terrazas-González, who would officially join the group shortly after the album was completed. Bixler-Zavala begins singing in a lower register than normal for him with a creepy robotic effect on his voice. After a few lines like this, the robotic effect is removed and he enters a higher register as Rodríguez-López begins arpeggiating quickly shifting chords in a slightly more aggressive manner. In the chorus of this section, Bixler-Zavala sings, “No there’s no light in the darkest of your furthest reaches” over and over again against a pummeling unison riff from the band. Another verse and chorus come next, after which a sweeping section heralds a fierce guitar solo that gives way to more series of ferocious riffs. The breakneck riffing eventually starts to decrescendo as the band enters the extended jam section of this song. Bixler-Zavala begins reciting the lyrics almost as if it were poetry over the surging, throbbing jam created by the band. Rodríguez-López wails emotively while Bixler-Zavala continues to spout off his fractured poetic images, always chock full of odd wordplay and symbology.
The middle two subsections of this song start to get a little fuzzy as to when they begin and end. The third subsection is called “Faminepulse,” and the fourth is called “Multiple Spouse Wounds.” The band begins to fully explore the jam elements of this track, bringing the dynamics up and down expertly, alternating between layers of psychedelically atmospheric noise and propulsive rock groove jamming. It’s almost impossible to talk about this section in words because it covers so many areas and includes so much. It encompasses elements of Miles Davis-esque jazz-fusion, trancy krautrock, avant-garde minimalism and heavy metal bombast. Several interesting melodies are introduced and expounded upon over the course of the jam. Some of the jams in these middle sections are the only parts of the album that were recorded as a band, not with Rodríguez-López’s method of segregating the individual members’ performances. I find them to be some of the highlights of the album, as they showcase the band’s ability to play off of each other and improvise intelligently more so than the rest of the album.
Beginning shortly before the 22 minute mark, the song enters its most brokedown section, with only a mellow bass groove, thin keyboards in the background and occasional guitar noise. This mellow jam continues for over six minutes, slowly and climactically building in intensity until the band returns to a riff heard at the beginning of the jam section and Bixler-Zavala repeats some of that sections lyrics. Eventually, this leads back to a reprise of the chorus from the “Plant A Nail In The Navel Stream” section, which ends with Bixler-Zavala singing, “You ain’t got nothing, you’re life was just a lie.”
What we learn over the course of this momentous song is that Vismund Cygnus thought that there was some sort of evil conspiracy that led to the deaths of his parents and to him becoming an orphan. What Vismund finds out is that his mother was really just a drug-addicted prostitute who gave him up for adoption. There was no shadowy secrets, no evil plot, just a woman who didn’t want to be responsible for being a mother. The last subsection of “Cassandra Gemini” is a short revisit of the “Sarcophagi” section that begins the album, in fact it’s almost exactly the same as the first minute of the album, creating a thematic unity.
Another track intended for the album, the titular “Frances The Mute,” had to be cut due to time constraints, but it was included as the B-side to “The Widow” single. It is another epic, running at almost 15 minutes in length. It tells somewhat of a condensed version of the album’s story. Vismund believes that his mother was murdered by some sort of secret society, but at the end of the song, his mother assures him, “This never happened,” to which Vismund responds, “But I saw you leave and crawl into a bed of broken windows.” This exchange is repeated several times, building in intensity until the final moments. Musically, it is as strong as anything else on the album, featuring a soaring vocal performance in the first section, entitled “In Thirteen Seconds,” a mellow middle section entitled “Nineteen Sank, While Six Could Swim,” and some impossibly complex rhythmic interplay in the third and final section, entitled “Five Would Grow And One Was Dead.”
Frances The Mute was released in March of 2005 to mostly positive reviews, though there were many fans of the first album that felt alienated by the extended jam sections and areas of abstract noise. It managed to reach #4 in the Billboard Top 200 albums chart and has gone gold in the U.S. Despite frequent lineup changes, including the loss of drummer Jon Theodore in 2006 and Ikey Owens in 2010, The Mars Volta managed to release four more albums before formally splitting up in 2013.
In summary, if you like music that rocks hard, but you also don’t mind music that relies on abstract minimalism and whisper-quiet sections of moody atmospherics, then The Mars Volta’s Frances The Mute is the perfect album for you. The music manages to cover everything from heavy metal to classic rock to progressive rock to Latin music to electronica to avant-garde art music. While I didn’t get too deep into the lyrics with this article, because (like I said earlier) it would take an article of double this length to fully explore all of the nuances of the lyrics and the facets of the concept, I feel that it is one of the most richly complex concept albums ever conceived. It really is like an auditory movie, and Bixler-Zavala’s lyrics manage to walk the fine line between abstractly surreal and pointedly direct. Upon first listen, the lyrics might seem to be stream of consciousness gibberish poetry, but there is almost always a hidden meaning behind Bixler-Zavala’s visceral imagery that pertains to the album’s mystery story. Suffice it to say, it is an album that only rewards repeat listening and in-depth examination. It is certainly one of my favorite albums of the past ten years. Give it a listen, see what you think.
If you have Spotify, you can listen to the entire album here: http://open.spotify.com/album/58NwaSn26UT4s8AGg4GImo
Also, to complete the story, you can hear the 15 minute title track, originally only available as the B-side to “The Widow” single here: http://open.spotify.com/album/4qJQkaxMu8o2tsj01Kvc8y
Welcome back music lovers. Thanks for stopping by for another installment of Normie Monday, my weekly blog posting that focuses on reviewing music, movies, television, books, or whatever may be capturing my attention at the time. For the past two weeks, I’ve been focusing on albums that formed the auditory backbone of my college experience; first the Super Furry Animals’ Rings Around The World and then The Flaming Lips’ Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots. This week, I’m going to look at Björk, an artist that I started listening to around 2003, when I was a Freshman in college. By 2004, I was a fairly big fan, and so it was with hot anticipation that I awaited the release of her new album, the subject of this week’s article, entitled Medúlla.
Björk Guðmundsdóttir was born and raised in Iceland and began showing an aptitude towards music at a very young age. Her first album came out in 1977, when she was a mere eleven years old, the result of a record deal secured when her music teacher sent a recording of her singing to a local radio station. Björk was offered the chance to record a second album, but (perhaps wisely) turned down the offer in order to focus on further developing her own unique style independently. By the time she was a teenager, she was singing in several bands in Iceland, ranging from the punk rock bands like Spit And Snot and Tippi Tikarrass (Icelandic for “cork the bitch’s ass”) to the jazz fusion group Exodus to the avant-garde goth rock group Kukl (Icelandic for “sorcery”).
Kukl eventually morphed into The Sugarcubes, who’s debut 1987 single “Birthday” became a surprise hit in the UK, leading to their debut album (1988’s Life Is Good, produced by former Gentle Giant bassist/violinist/songwriter Ray Shulman) becoming a modest international success, an unprecedented feat for an Icelandic band. Despite the newly found success and the copious amount of prospective record deals coming in, The Sugarcubes remained loyal to their record label One Little Indian, owned by Derek Birkett, a friend from their Kukl days (Björk remains on One Little Indian to this day). The Sugarcubes released two more albums (1989’s Here Today, Tomorrow Next Week! and 1992’s Stick Around For Joy) before disbanding amicably in 1993.
After The Sugarcubes broke up, Björk promptly set about fashioning a solo career, moving to London and collaborating with producer Nellee Hooper. Her first solo album (as an adult), 1993’s aptly named Debut, proved to be a massive success in the UK (where it reached the #3 spot and spawned three top 40 singles) and a moderate success in the US (where it reached #61). It’s followup, 1995’s Post, managed to surpass even these lofty placings, reaching #2 in the UK and #32 in the US). These first two albums served to introduce much of the world to Björk’s uniquely beautiful voice and eclectic musical styling, containing elements of genres ranging from alternative rock to electronic pop to classical to big band jazz.
In 1996, a deranged stalker named Ricardo López attempted to mail Björk a booby trapped book that would spray acid in her face when she opened it. López made a video document of his exploits, and after he killed himself and the videos were discovered, the package was intercepted by police before reaching Björk. This scare caused Björk to reevaluate her “cute” image and to somewhat shake off some of her pop leanings, resulting in 1997’s denser and somewhat more experimental Homogenic. In 2000, Björk starred in a Lars von Trier film entitled Dancer In The Dark, for which she also provided the soundtrack, released the same year as the Selmasongs EP, which featured a duet with Radiohead’s Thom Yorke on the Oscar-nominated track “I’ve Seen It All.” 2001’s Vespertine saw Björk further delving into experimental sounds (including pioneering work in microbeats) and working with chamber orchestras and choirs.
Björk began self-producing her fifth album (sixth if you count the album that was released when she was eleven) in 2003 after recovering from the birth of her second child. Early in the production stages, Björk decided that she wanted this new album, eventually named Medúlla, to be entirely a cappella, or featuring only human voices. Eventually, this rule was broken a bit, as some sparse keyboard, percussion and programmed beats were added to more fully flesh out the songs. Additionally, sometimes the vocals are heavily processed or cut up to create beats and rhythms.
In addition to her own gorgeously lilting voice, Björk brought in an impressive cast of collaborators to help her fully realize the vocals-only album. Master beatboxers Rahzel (previously in The Roots), Shlomo and Dokaka were brought in to provide beats and rhythms (an ingenious move for an album meant to highlight the versatility of the human voice), and Inuit throat singer Tanya Tagaq makes frequent appearances, adding her guttural moans and grunts. Additionally, avant-garde rocker Mike Patton (of Mr. Bungle and Faith No More fame), former Soft Machine drummer/singer Robert Wyatt (see Normie Monday eps. 22 and 23 for articles on Soft Machine and Robert Wyatt, respectively) and Gregory Purnhagen (a baritone singer the Philip Glass Ensemble) were brought in to add their distinctive voices to a couple of tracks each. The Icelandic Choir and the London Choir provide choral arrangements to several songs, and most of the programming work was performed by frequent Björk collaborators Mark Bell (who co-produced three tracks on the album) and Valgeir Sigurðsson (who engineered the album), with guests Matmos and Olivier Alary providing programming work on one track each.
Medúlla opens with “Pleasure Is All Mine,” and it begins with Björk singing a simple melody in two-part self harmony. As this repeats, a choir of quick gasping breaths and raspy gulps (courtesy of Björk and Tanya Tagaq) begins to fade up as Mike Patton begins simulating a bass beat drop with his throat. This vocal madness continues as the main section of the song starts, and Björk begins singing the lyrics backed by the Icelandic Choir and a beatboxed beat from Rahzel. The lyrics seem to be about Björk’s personal bedroom philosophies with lines such as, “To get to be the generous one is the strongest stance,” and “When in doubt, give.” This theory is strengthened by the grunts and groans that pervade the song. As with most of the songs on this album (and, indeed much of her career) Björk’s singing ranges from fragile and waifish to powerful and assertive. Her voice has always been one of her strongest assets with her unique phrasing and cadences, and this song is no exception.
The brief “Show Me Forgiveness” is up next, and it adheres most closely to the album’s concept, as it’s a solo vocal performance from Björk alone, one single track of her singing backed by nothing and nobody. The lyrics are a plea for forgiveness for losing faith in herself. This song evokes a simple, but powerful emotional response with Björk’s plaintive vocal delivery.
The next track is the darkest and most assertive track on the album, the near-industrial “Where Is The Line?” It begins with Björk repeatedly singing, “Where is the line with you?” until a frightening beat from Rahzel is introduced, this one heavily cut up and effected to give it a more electronic feel. Indeed, Björk’s own voice becomes heavily distorted as the track progresses, lending it a creepy vibe. Additionally, the Icelandic Choir provides a ghostly backing to amp up the spookiness. This track also features Mike Patton and Gregory Purnhagen providing vocal bass lines and, later, providing harmonies to Björk’s vocal line. The lyrics of this song seem to be about discovering the difference between being charitable and being walked on, with lines like, “My purse wide open, you ask again,” and “I want to help you, but enough is enough.” It could also be seen as a condemnation of a friend or loved one (possibly her teenaged son) that has overstepped their bounds when it comes to how much they can rightfully take from her. Either way, the scorn and disappointment are readily apparent in this jagged, edgy song.
The moody “Vökuró” (Icelandic for “vigil”) is up next, and it’s Björk’s interpretation of a piece by Jórunn Viðar (music) and Jakobína Sigurðardóttir (text), which was itself based on a traditional Icelandic folk song. Björk sings the entirely Icelandic lyrics backed by only the Icelandic Choir. The lyrics translate to a simple, but poetic ode to the beauty of nature in winter, written from the point of view of a farmer who is patiently waiting for spring (a sentiment I’m sure many readers will sympathize with right now). This track possesses a delicate beauty and a timeless quality that gives it a special place on the album.
The next track is entitled “Öll Birtan” (Icelandic for “all the brightness”), and it’s essentially an exercise in programming vocal samples. A simple beat is created by Björk sampling herself singing one guttural syllable before two higher notes are added. These three notes continue to repeat as Björk sings the nonsense lyrics (not Icelandic) in weird overlapping harmonies. This song is another perfect example of the flexibility of Björk’s voice, which reaches some powerful heights as the song crescendos and peaks, with her voice taking on an aggressive edge at times.
“Who Is It (Carry My Joy On The Left, Carry My Pain On The Right)” is up next, and it’s one of the more traditional pop songs on the album. It features Björk and Tanya Tagaq on vocals with uptempo beatboxing from Rahzel and programming work from the electronica duo Matmos. Additionally, Björk breaks her own voice-only rule by playing some synth bass on this track. It begins with Björk harmonizing with herself on some melodic wails before a rumbling bass invades the sonic landscape and Björk begins singing the lyrics as Rahzel’s beat emerges. It seems to me to be a song about acknowledging those that love you and have helped you, with the catchy refrain of, “Who is it that never lets you down? Who is it that gave you back your crown?” This song has a more discernible chordal structure than much of the rest of the album, and it’s uptempo beat and feel-good lyrics were certainly a contributing factor to this song being the first widely released single from the album.
The next track, “Submarine,” is a duet with Robert Wyatt, and I personally couldn’t ask for a better combination of voices. I’m a big admirer of Wyatt, and his voice blends beautifully with Björk’s. It begins with Wyatt’s deep rumbling voice creating a low pad as he overdubs a series of odd sounding vocal twitters, warbles and hushed breathing. Eventually, Björk and Wyatt begin harmonizing lyrics (with occasionally very weird harmonies) about finding the inner strength to shake off laziness and produce something. Björk has said that she wrote this song about the placid feeling that she had after giving birth and the need she felt to, “Shake off the heavy deep sleep,” and to, “Do it now!”
“Desired Constellation” is up next, and it’s one of my personal favorites on the album. It features the Icelandic Choir and programming work from French composer Olivier Alary (who also receives a co-writing credit on this song). It begins with a glitchy electronica pad that combines a melody with a minimalistic rhythm, though apparently it is from a sample of Björk’s voice taken from the song “Hidden Place” from her previous album Vespertine. The lyrics tell of that feeling when you know that you owe something to someone that has helped you, but you don’t know what to do about it. Björk wails emotively in the chorus, “How am I going to make it right?” with a beautiful melody that reminds me of Sting singing “I want my MTV” from Dire Straits’ “Money For Nothing.”
The sublime “Oceania” is up next, and it’s another main highlight of the album. The lyrics about an ocean looking up onto the land and observing the people there were written by Björk’s friend and frequent collaborator Sjón, an Icelandic poet. This track features a sterling contribution from the London Choir, who’s quickly ascending and descending vocal cadences accurately simulate schools of fish and other marine life swimming and swirling about. This song also features a beat from British beatboxer Shlomo, some piano (GASP!) from Icelandic musician Nico Muhly and vocal samples from Robert Wyatt, whose voice creates pads of chords in the background. Björk sang this song at the 2004 Summer Olympics Opening Ceremony, during which her giant blue dress unfolded to cover the entire stadium, showing a map of the world. This song was originally chosen to be the lead off single from the album, but it never made it past the promo stage for some reason.
The next track, “Sonnets/Unrealities XI,” features an E. E. Cummings poem set to Björk’s melodies (something she had done previously with the track “Sun In My Mouth” on Vespertine). It features only Björk and the Icelandic Choir, no programming or beatboxing. The choral arrangement in this one is breathtaking, giving the song a classical, almost romantic feel. Once again, Björk delivers splendidly in this song, her voice reaching depths of emotion that only the greatest singers can achieve.
One of the weirder tracks on the album comes next, the atmospheric “Ancestors.” It features some spacey piano work from Björk and a series of wordless guttural grunts from Björk and Inuit throat singer Tanya Tagaq (who receives a co-writing credit on this song). Björk also provides some wordless melodic vocals as the grunts and groans build up into a frenzy. This song can be a bit challenging to listen to, but ultimately rewarding, as it can be very cathartic.
“Mouth’s Cradle” is up next, and it’s a song about retreating from the drama and politics of the outside world by going inside of one’s own head. “I need a shelter to build an altar away from all the Osama’s and the Bushes,” sings Björk. Another song that breaks the vocals-only rule pretty obviously, it begins with a sequenced rhythm and melody that continues as the Icelandic Choir begins singing a counter melody and rhythm to the sequencer line. This song also features a beat from Rahzel and some more grunting and groaning from Tanya Tagaq. As this song progresses, the choir builds in intensity as more vocal samples are brought in, creating a din of mouth noises. Melodically, this is another of my favorites on the album with Björk’s interesting vocal cadences highlighted. I’m always impressed by Björk’s ability to weave her words through the dense beats and create melodies that play perfectly off of the rhythm and chord progression.
The next track is called “Miðvikudags” (Icelandic for “Wednesday”), and it’s another interesting exercise in vocal sampling, possibly even featuring the same sample used earlier in “Öll Birtan.” It features layers of vocal lines and rhythms that build to a powerful climax as some minimalistic programming adds some atmospheric space in the background.
The album ends with (in my opinion) the weakest track on the album, the poppy “Triumph Of The Heart.” This track features Japanese beatboxer Dokaka simulating the sound of a DJ scratching records, and I just find the sound of it to be kind of annoying. It also features beatboxing from Rahzel and “human trombone” from Gregory Purnhagen, one of the more interesting elements of the song. Once again, the uptempo poppy nature of this song ultimately led to it being released as the second widely distributed single from the album. While it does have some interesting moments melodically and production wise (such as the “meowing” sound sampled for the chorus), I feel that it was a bad choice to end the album with. I would have preferred one of the more atmospheric and spectral songs to end the album on a serene note, not an uptempo one.
Medúlla was released in August of 2004 and went to #9 in the UK and #14 in the US (oddly enough, her lowest placing yet in the UK, but her highest placing yet in the US). Björk chose not to tour in support of this album, instead opting to immediately begin recording another album, which resulted in 2007’s Volta, a return of sorts to the less experimental, more accessibly nature of her first two albums. She has released one more album since, the exquisite Biophilia, which was innovatively released as a series of apps (in addition to the regular CD issue). Björk continues to record and tour, always pushing the boundaries of what’s acceptable in a pop format.
In summary, I would recommend Medúlla to anyone that is interested in the power and flexibility of the human voice. However, aside from the gimmick of the vocals-only album, Björk is still a singer of unimaginable power and emotional impact, and most of the songs on this album are excellent apart from their vocals-only nature. Indeed, several songs from the album have been reinterpreted to include other instruments on Björk’s subsequent tours. While this may not be Björk’s “best” album (that designation I would give to Post or Homogenic), it’s almost certainly her most interesting, and it’s one that I will forever remember listening to in my old college roommate Phil’s room with Joe and Zack and having our collective minds blown by the sheer awesomeness that is Björk. Give it a listen, see what you think.
If you have Spotify, you can listen to the entire album here: http://open.spotify.com/album/6bjGw9Clp684XTRPBI0h6K
"If you live long enough, you’ll make mistakes. But if you learn from them, you’ll be a better person. It’s how you handle adversity, not how it affects you. The main things is never quit, never quit, never quit."
Welcome back music lovers. Thanks for stopping by for another installment of Normie Monday, my weekly blog posting that focuses on reviewing music, movies, television, books, or whatever may be capturing my attention at the time. Last week, I started a series on albums that shaped the sonic landscape of my college experience. This week, I’m going to be discussing one of the defining musical works for that period of my life, an album that provided the soundtrack for an endless number of parties and social events; The Flaming Lip’s 2002 masterpiece Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots.
The Flaming Lips were founded in Norman, OK in 1983 by brothers Mark and Wayne Coyne (vocals and guitar, respectively) with Michael Ivins on bass and Dave Kostka on drums. By the time of their 1984 self-titled debut EP, Kostka had been replaced by Richard English. Shortly after the release of the EP, Mark Coyne quit the band to focus on his marriage and career, and Wayne Coyne took up the duties of lead singer. The trio of Coyne, Ivins and English released three albums on the small Restless Records label throughout the 1980’s; 1986’s Here It Is, 1987’s Oh My Gawd!!!… The Flaming Lips and 1989’s Telepathic Surgery. These early releases showcase the band’s penchant for combining noisy punk rock with trippy psychedelia, but largely eschew the musical sophistication and classical flourishes that came to characterize their later work.
By 1990’s In A Priest Driven Ambulance (With Silver Sunshine Stares), Richard English had been replaced on drums by Nathan Roberts and the band had added second guitarist Jonathan Donahue (of the band Mercury Rev). In A Priest Driven Ambulance (With Silver Sunshine Stares) was a major turning point for the band in many ways. It was their first album to receive any serious attention from the music press, and it was their first album to be produced by Dave Fridmann (also a member of Mercury Rev), who has worked with the band ever since. The popularity garnered from In A Priest Driven Ambulance (With Silver Sunshine Stares) was enough to secure the band a deal with Warner Bros. Records, who released their next album Hit To Death In The Future Head in 1992.
Hit To Death In The Future Head was not particularly successful, and shortly after it was recorded, Roberts and Donahue left the band (with the later returning to his duties in Mercury Rev) and were replaced by Steven Drodz and Ronald Jones, respectively. This lineup of Coyne, Ivins, Drodz and Jones recorded their next album, 1993’s Transmissions From The Satellite Heart, which gave the band their first major chart success in the form of the single “She Don’t Use Jelly,” which has gone on to become an anthem of 1990’s alternative rock. Their followup album, 1995’s Clouds Taste Metallic, was critically well received, but failed to match the chart success of Transmissions From The Satellite Heart.
Shortly after the tour in support of Clouds Taste Metallic, Ronald Jones quit the band citing a growing case of agoraphobia, though he later claimed it had more to do with Steven Drodz’s increasing heroin use (more on that later). The band decided to continue as a three-piece, with Drodz taking up triple duty as the band’s drummer, keyboardist and lead guitarist, also providing background and (occasionally) lead vocals. Their first album in this incarnation was 1997’s experimental Zaireeka, which consisted of four separate CD’s that were meant to be played simultaneously on separate CD players in order to hear the full arrangements of the track (sort of a poor man’s surround sound). The music on Zaireeka provided the first example of the band newly found sophistication under the musical direction of Steven Drodz. It also marked the the band’s first major use of drum machines, synthesizers and samplers, a trend that would come to full fruition on their next album.
1999’s The Soft Bulletin became the band’s major breakthrough on the album charts and was heavily applauded by critics. The making of the album was beset by a series of unfortunate and tragic events; Michael Ivins was in a serious car accident, Wayne Coyne’s father passed away and Steven Drodz almost had to have his arm amputated due to what he claimed to be an infected spider bite (in reality, it was an abscessed heroin injection site). The music on the album blended the band’s newly found level of experimentation and musical sophistication with catchy pop melodies, epic song structures, intricate arrangements and emotionally charged performances. Wayne Coyne reached new heights as a songwriter as well, with his lyrics addressing deep philosophical and spiritual issues with simple, blunt language that the average individual can understand and apply to their own existences.
For the followup to the successful The Soft Bulletin, The Flaming Lips returned to Tarbox Studios in Cassadaga, New York (where they had recorded The Soft Bulletin) and once again worked with producer Dave Fridmann (with additional production help from Scott Booker). The new album, eventually titled Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots, took almost two years to record, from spring of 2000 to spring of 2002. The band was joined by Yoshimi P-We (a drummer and vocalist for several Japanese bands, including Boredoms and OOIOO) who adds Japanese singing, talking and screaming to several songs. The music on the album saw the band exploring an electronica influenced sound more deeply than before, with drum machines and samplers featured more prominently than ever. The lyrics further expounded upon Coyne’s ability to convey deeply emotional meanings with straight-to-the-point, easy to understand language, dealing with universal themes like love, death and standing up for what you believe in.
The album opens with the anthemic “Fight Test,” which begins with the sound of a cheering crowd and a buzzing keyboard texture. A booming voice announces, “The test begins… NOW!” and on the last word, a thunderous kick drum counts off the start of the song. The band launches into a bouncy beat with a jubilant chord progression, anchored by a melodic fuzz-bass line and spirited acoustic guitar strumming. Coyne’s emotively lilting voice enters, singing lyrics that are about (on the surface) fighting to win back the affection of a lover, but on a deeper level, they’re about the thin line that exists between being a pacifist and standing up for what you believe is right. Coyne addresses this paradox with the refrain of, “I don’t know where the sunbeams end and the starlight begins, it’s all a mystery. I don’t know how a man decides what’s right for his own life, it’s all a mystery.” This was the third and final single released from this album, but only managed to chart in the UK, where it reached #28. After the song was released, Cat Stevens sued the group for copyright infringement due to this song’s similarity to his song “Father And Son.” The lawsuit was settled out of court, and Cat Stevens now receives 75% of all royalties received from this song.
At the end of “Fight Test,” a voice announces similarly to the beginning of the song, “The test is over, NOW!” as the last word dissolves in a sea of reverb. Out of this sea, a melancholic chord progression fades up on the synths, segueing into the next song, entitled “One More Robot/Sympathy 3000-21.” The melancholic synth chord progression is eventually joined by the band, including a funky ascending bass line, mellow piano chords and a robotic programmed drum beat. Coyne begins singing in his fragile falsetto about a robot attempting to feel real emotions and feelings. I believe that Coyne is trying to say that no one can ever really know whether or not robots experience actual emotions because an individual person cannot truly experience what anything else is feeling, human or not. Therefore, how can we be sure that robots and other inanimate objects really don’t feel, love or have emotions, “’Cause it’s hard to say what’s real, when you know the way you feel. Is it wrong to think it’s love when it tries the way it does?” The song ends with a soaring synth string orchestration that really amps up the emotional impact of the song, lending some cinematic weight.
After the emotional heaviness of the previous song, we get the silly quirkiness of “Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots, Pt. 1.” A joyously strummed acoustic guitar kicks off the song in an uplifting manner, and is soon joined by a groovy drum machine beat. Coyne begins singing the humorous lyrics about Yoshimi, a black belt in karate, who is working for the city to defeat an army of evil-natured robots. “Oh Yoshimi, they don’t believe me, but you won’t let those robots eat me,” sings Coyne in the catchy sing-along chorus as a synth bass pumps out a squishy bass line and layers of psychedelic sounds add to the playful nature of the song. This was the second single released from the album, which reached #18 in the UK, one of their highest placings there.
A quick segue leads us into “Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots, Pt. 2,” which sonically chronicles the actual robot battle. Some subsonic synth bass hits act as a precursor to the funky proceedings to follow. A drum fill brings us into the meat of the song, which consists mostly of a heavy descending bass riff, a bombastic drum track and a bevy of electronic embellishments. Over all of this, Yoshimi P-We screams, shrieks and wails as if she’s being attacked by robots. After one last big crashing descending bass riff, an audience applauds as if they’d been watching the battle all along.
This segues into the next song, “In The Morning Of The Magicians,” one of the more epic compositions on the album. A warbling synth leads off the song with a simple ascending five note melody before a funky bass line kicks things into high gear with a tense drum beat and atmospheric synth string chords. The warbling synth from the intro returns to provide the main melodic movement, which eventually gives way to a mellow little interlude where the synth strings soar and glide, creating a symphonic moment of sublime bliss. Out of these textural swells comes a delicately strummed acoustic guitar as Coyne begins to sing the lyrics, which seem to once again be about artificial emotions and questioning the true meaning of love. “What is love and what is hate, and why does it matter? Is to love just a waste, and how can it matter?” croons Coyne in his delicate falsetto. After the first stanza of lyrics, we are returned to the funky figure from the beginning of the song, but the textural synth strings in the background are more forceful this time around. We then get another symphonic interlude and a mellow stanza of lyrics in a pretty direct repetition of the previous structure. Once again, after the second stanza, we are brought back to the funky figure from the intro, but in an even more forceful and dramatic nature, ending the song in an especially powerful way as the song fades out amidst a din of audience cheering.
The next song is possibly my favorite song on the album, the majestic “Ego Tripping At The Gates Of Hell.” It is anchored by a perky synth bass line, which kicks off the song and is soon joined by a mellow electronic drum beat and a sparsely strummed acoustic guitar. As the verse begins, sweeping synth strings begin padding out the chords as Coyne’s soaring falsetto sings out, “I was waiting for the moment, but the moment never came.” This song perfectly exemplifies Coyne’s ability to convey deep, emotional messages in simple, blunt language that is easily identifiable and transferable. At its heart, this song is about aimlessly going through life, always waiting for something to happen or someone to initiate something in your life, and never directly taking charge of your own situation, a theme visited earlier on The Soft Bulletin with “Waiting For A Superman.” The mood of the song progresses fairly statically, except for some psychedelic flourishes that pop up occasionally.
The album enters a bit of a slump in the middle here, beginning with the somewhat forgettable “Are you A Hypnotist??” It begins with some anthemic synth chords (that sound like a mix of strings and choir voices) that climb up before a mid-tempo drum beat kicks things off, soon joined by a subsonic bass line and textural keyboard accompaniment. A melody is introduced on what sounds like a heavily effected electric guitar before Coyne begins singing the somewhat vague lyrics. “I had forgiven you for tricking me again, but I have been tricked again into forgiving you,” sings Coyne before the refrain of, “What is this? Are you some kind of hypnotist waving your powers around? The sun eclipsed behind a cloud,” as the band dissolves into a din of psychedelic noise on this last line. Another guitar melody section, verse and chorus make up the rest of the song, which ends with a held out chord from the string/choir synth sound.
“It’s Summertime” continues the mid-album slump with another easily forgettable song, beginning with psychedelically delayed bass notes that are soon joined by an acoustic guitar strumming chords, an electric guitar arpeggiating melodies and the sounds of birds chirping. Eventually a drum machine beat is added to the proceedings as Coyne sings the lyrics about the juxtaposition of feeling sad on a beautiful summer day. The best part comes in the last half of this song, as the electric guitar starts arpeggiating a melancholic melody, which soon fades out, leaving the psychedelically delayed bass, the birds chirping and the drum machine rhythm.
The next track is possibly the best known track on the album, and maybe even the best known Flaming Lips song in general, the anthemic “Do You Realize??” After a robotic voice counts off, “One, two, three, four,” the band launches into a driving rhythm of aggressively strummed acoustic guitars and percussion that borders on orchestral. The use of tubular bells during this song adds to the bombastically symphonic nature of this song. The lyrics of this song are especially poignant and inspirational, with lines that hint at self-realization and mortality, “Do you realize that you have the most beautiful face?” and “Do you realize that everyone you know someday will die?” One of my favorite lines on the album is, “You realize the sun doesn’t go down, it’s just an illusion caused by the world spinning ‘round.” Ultimately, I think the song is about reminding oneself of the preciousness of our existence on Earth and how unbelievable and possibly unlikely that existence is. This was the lead-off single released from the album, reaching #32 in the UK. “Do You Realize??” was also adopted as the official rock song of Oklahoma in 2009, but this was revoked in 2013 when the newly appointed Republican governor failed to renew an executive order designating it so.
Up next is another of my personal favorites on the album, the sentimental “All We Have Is Now.” It begins with mellow piano chords that are soon joined by Coyne’s delicate voice, singing a song about a man who comes back from the future and explains that the human race is not gonna make it. The narrator then concludes that, “All we have is now, all we’ve ever have is now, all we’ll ever have is now.” In the second verse, it is revealed that the man from the future is actually the narrator of the song, “From a dimension torn free of the future.” Coyne uses the sci-fi narrative as a parable for learning to live in the present, not focusing too much of the past or the future, because who knows if there will even be a future? The music of this song possesses a beautiful melancholia, complete with tympani, soaring synth strings, delicately arpeggiated electric guitar and an especially emotive vocal delivery from Coyne. The song ends dramatically with one last utterance of “All we have is now,” as the synth strings hold out the last chord and fade out.
The album ends with “Approaching Pavonis Mons By Balloon (Utopia Planitia),” a chill instrumental that acts as an epilogue for the album, almost like the music over the closing credits of a film. It consists mostly of a mellow electronic drum beat and throbbing synth bass, over which the guitar plays a simple melody and the synth orchestrations create a thick din of psychedelic textures and melodies. A synth trumpet takes a lead role during the second half of the song, which ends uneventfully with a simple drop out from the drum machine and a quick fade out from the synth orchestrations. This song netted The Flaming Lips their first Grammy in 2002 for Best Rock Instrumental Performance, a feat that they were able to duplicate in 2006 with the instrumental track “The Wizard Turns On…” from At War With The Mystics, their followup to Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots.
Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots was released in July of 2002 (right after I graduated from High School), and managed to make it to #50 in the US album charts and #13 in the UK album charts, by far their highest placing in either at that point. It was also certified gold in April of 2006. The Flaming Lips have gone on to release three full length albums since then; 2006’s At War With The Mystics, 2009’s Embryonic and 2013’s The Terror. Apart from their official albums, however, they’ve released numerous EP’s, including several collaborative EP’s with other artists, such as Neon Indian, Prefuse 73, Lightning Bolt and Yoko Ono/Plastic Ono Band. They’ve also curated and participated in three track-for-track reinterpretations of classic albums (Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side Of The Moon, King Crimson’s In The Court Of The Crimson King and The Stone Roses’ self-titled debut), and Wayne Coyne has written and directed a film entitled Christmas On Mars, for which The Flaming Lips did the soundtrack. The Flaming Lips are still recording and touring to this day, and have even added full-time members Kliph Scurlock on drums (so that Drodz can focus more on keyboards and guitars) and Derek Brown on guitars, keyboards and percussion (essentially filling in for whatever Drodz isn’t doing at that time).
In Summary, if you like richly layered, spacey psychedelic pop with touches of electronica and indie rock, the The Flaming Lips’ Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots is perfect for you. If all you’ve heard from this album is “Do You Realize??” and the title track (and maybe “Fight Test”), then I strongly recommend listening to the rest of the album, as I feel that some of the best tracks are the deeper cuts. The lyrics are one of the best parts of this album, as they can make you feel joyous and melancholic at the same time. They are incredibly uplifting, though sombre, highlighting the frail intricacies of life and basking in the sublime light of feeling real emotions. As Wayne Coyne says, “Do you realize that happiness makes you cry?” I couldn’t recommend it any more highly. Give it a listen, see what you think.
If you have Spotify, you can listen to the entire album here: http://open.spotify.com/album/49LA20VMk65fQyEaIzYdvf