Friday, October 12, 2007

TERRELL'S TUNEUP: LIPS AND ZOOS

A version of this was published in The Santa Fe New Mexican
October 12, 2007


What does it mean when the last two releases that I’ve really liked from The Flaming Lips aren’t albums but DVDs? Seriously — the Lips’ last album, At War With the Mystics, pretty much left me cold, while the main thing I remember from 2002’s Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots is the gorgeous “Do You Realize?”

But I loved the band’s 2005 documentary film The Fearless Freaks, which lovingly portrayed Lips leader Wayne Coyne as the bighearted, working-class, Okie goofball we knew he was all along.

And I am truly impressed with the new Lips DVD, U.F.O.s at The Zoo: The Legendary Concert in Oklahoma City. Maybe this is a band that needs to be seen as well as heard.

First, let me disclose a prejudice. Chances are I’d be inclined to like anything shot in what is now officially known as the Oklahoma City Zoo and Botanical Garden. It was one of my favorite childhood haunts back when we used to just call it the “Lincoln Park Zoo.” (Sad note: I just discovered that Judy the elephant, who had been in the zoo since 1949, died in 1997. Matilda the hippo, who had been there nearly as long, died a year later. I remember well both of these wonderful pachyderm ladies.)

But this DVD isn’t really about the zoo, or Oklahoma City for that matter. It’s about the crazy big-time rock ’n’ roll spectacle the Lips present. Descending in a huge plastic bubble that comes out of an even huger flying saucer that “lands” on the stage, Coyne is a disheveled master of ceremonies of a show that borrows heavily from classic P-Funk, Pink Floyd, and Spinal Tap.

Yet, with all the Santas and space aliens dancing around (lucky Lips fans are recruited for these roles before the show) — and, of course, the music — you never forget which band is in charge here.

And yes, besides the showmanship, the music is in fine form — even those Mystics and Yoshimi songs that didn’t excite me that much in their original forms. Coyne knows he’s playing to a home-team crowd, and he and the other Lips give it their all.

While some of their more recent material tends to sound like soundtrack pieces played live with a basic four-man band — it’s pure, high-energy rock ’n’ roll. The live version of Mystics’ “Free Radicals,” for instance, packs a much harder punch than the studio version. Singing in a strange falsetto, Coyne calls to mind Prince being probed by alien abductors. That’s also true for the crazed instrumental “Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots Part II.” It’s an explosion of raw, crunching psychedelic noise.

The songs lean heavily toward the band’s more recent albums, including The Soft Bulletin (1999). They reach back to the mid ’90s for their first big MTV hit, “She Don’t Use Jelly.” One of my only complaints is that there is not more pre-Soft Bulletin material. “Bad Days” from Clouds Taste Metallic is still my favorite Lips song of all time, and they really ought to revive it.

One of the things I like about this DVD is that it has a link that allows you to download MP3s of any or all of the songs from the concert. I hope this commendable feature becomes a full-fledged trend — nay, a required feature — of concert DVDs in the future.

Speaking of Lips downloads, at the time of the DVD release of The Fearless Freaks, the Lips gave away (!) the movie soundtrack as MP3 downloads. You still can find that soundtrack at http://www.125hz.com/.

Like many rock-concert films, U.F.O.s at The Zoo unfortunately wastes too much time with worthless footage of fan babble. These people came all the way from Houston to see the show. How dedicated! This girl’s wearing a funny animal costume. How unique! Who cares? Get back to the show.

But, corny as it sounds, I believe the Lips really are fond of their followers. In the package behind the actual disc is a message that says, “The Flaming Lips Will Always Love You.” The proof is in the show they put on.

Another recommended DVD:

* Fancy
by Les Claypool. You won’t find a bunch of fan interviews on this disc. The stage show isn’t on par with The Flaming Lips, although Claypool and his cronies do an impressive array of masks and funny hats. And unfortunately there’s no link to MP3 downloads either.

All you have is a bunch of fine tunes by the ex-Primus bass ace/frontman and his latest band. The footage was shot at various shows in various cities by Claypool fans, and the sound is some kind of fancy brew of mixing-board recordings and bootleg fan tapes.

I always liked Primus, but this band may be even more impressive. While Primus was a basic bass/guitar/drums unit, the Claypool ensemble on Fancy includes a sax (played by a man called Sherik), vibraphone, and marimba (Mike Dillon); drums by Paulo Baldi; and a sitar. Not a cheesy, ’60s-era electric sitar but a real, big old sitar played by a woman who goes by the name Gabby La La. She also plays ukulele and theremin.

Most the songs on the DVD are from Claypool side projects and solo albums, including his 2006 Of Whales and Woe, 2002’s Purple Onion, and 1996’s Highball With the Devil. I wouldn’t have minded a new take on Primus tunes like “My Name Is Mud” or “Bob’s Party Time Lounge,” but these lesser-known songs do just fine. Especially impressive is “Cosmic Highway,” a wild ride of raga rock, free jazz, and Claypool’s trademark bouncy doofus metal with electric hillbilly vocals.

Pretty darn fancy!

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