Burnt Offerings

The Flaming Lips
Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots
Warner Brothers, 2002

This is not a band that deserves to be saddled with repeated introductions, but their highly anticipated follow-up to the beautiful genius of The Soft Bulletin somehow seems to fall on virgin ears. Apropos their obscure fate, Wayne Coyne and The Flaming Lips are geniuses of perseverance. A 20-year career has produced 11 albums, with each new effort clawing another rung up the ladder of the stubbornly weird. In 1984, or so the legend goes, when Michael Stipe was hiding in a closet in Athens to record Murmur, The Flaming Lips invested in the first PA system in the Oklahoma City punk scene. This marvel of science guaranteed the modern-day champions of acid rock a place on stage with bands like Hüsker Dü, not to mention every single band in the local scene. Eventually the Lips’ penchant for real experimentation via Led Zeppelin covers in the morass of ‘80s crap found them supporting the Jesus and Mary Chain and that font of all weirdness, the Hairway to Steven-era Butthole Surfers. Their reputation as pioneers of the “alternative” are fed by rumors of events like the famous “parking-lot experiments,” which culminated in a demo at Austin’s 1997 South by Southwest festival, during which 30 different tapes were played simultaneously from 30 different cars. The result was, perhaps, the only successful fusion of interactive elements into the creation of listenable music. Yoshimi, like The Soft Bulletin, is a concept album. Named after Yoshimi P-we of the Boredoms, the protagonist explores the death of a Japanese fan and the bizarre circumstances under which Coyne and the band were told of her death across a fertile landscape of subtly tweaked sound. The album is soft, pretty and accessible, a narrative soundscape taking the mind-bending technical experience of creating 1997’s Zaireeka through filters of childlike awe and emotional abandonment. It evolves into what Coyne himself describes as a “candy-coated potato chip,” a deceptively electronic, organic album (or vice versa . . .) that says too much and ends too soon. It is yet another minutely flawed magnum opus from a band that deserves so much more than a gentle tip of the hat. Which is likely more than the musical proletariat of the late 20th century will ever grant them.

Johnny Cash
American IV: The Man Comes Around
Universal, 2002

So much “mainstream” entertainment seems three parts contrivance to one part each talent and manufacture, which makes it hard to reconcile certain memories of Mr. John Cash. Cutting the engine to save gas and winding a Ford van down a 10-kilometer decline in Bosnia with a friend reciting “A Boy Named Sue” in the passenger seat – the first time I saw shelled-out homes. Arguing with another friend over a mint vinyl copy of At Folsom Prison we found in a southside Richmond, Virginia strip-mall thrift store and finally agreeing to wrap it in cellophane tape and keep it on top of the refrigerator “forever.” Johnny Cash’s lot, to which he seems dourly resigned, is to wander the zone between Hank Williams authenticity and Tom Jones mendaciousness. One might say, without overmuch irony, that he walks the line. Cash uses the beneath-the-scale bass of his voice like a cat’s paw to stretch every bit of emotion out of each song of this decidedly bizarre assemblage. He makes Depeche Mode’s “Personal Jesus” sound heartfelt, Simon and Garfunkel’s “Bridge over Troubled Water” sound manly and “Danny Boy” comes off as American as Don Henley. (You can actually hear the smile lines deepen at “Desperado, you ain’t getting no younger.”) The collection is salted with original tunes like the spine-tingling title track, which finds St. John set to by country’s most apt voyeur, armed only with a deceptively aging baritone, a guitar and a steamship piano. Johnny Cash is an anomaly, simply put. From the baby-faced, tough-as-nails ex-con riffing on the long-lost girl next door for a newborn Sun Records to the dark-miened troubadour of the omega days, Johnny Cash, and, perhaps more importantly, his image, simply remains – and that is a wondrous feat.

The Acid Gospel Experience
Émigré, 2002

Packaged as part of the Émigré company’s distantly avant-garde typography and design quarterly, the debut album of this hypno-electronic ensemble plods a meandering path through the conceptual wading pool that is electronic music. Pawing through the hyper-sanitized packaging, complete with Émigré leader Bruce Licher’s painfully proud introduction just after the title page, somehow reinforces the fact that you’re swimming in dirty water. Reminiscent of so much and attempting so many jerky forays into apparent novelty, the overall affect is of a precisely planned effort overfinished. Dropping hints of ethno-trance onto a polished obelisk reflecting Slowdive, Mercury Rev, The Verve and others, the Acid Gospel Experience is often distastefully redolent of nothing so much as cliché and guitar-noodling solipsism. The sad thing is that 10 years ago, before high school kids could squeeze home versions of Pro-Tools onto their new G4s, this would have been a breakthrough accomplishment – and it’s not as though the Acid Gospel Experience is bad music. On the contrary, it’s quite listenable, but the fact that it is couched in such pretensions makes it a bit hard to stomach. Go ahead: You might find that you can rock 1995, if you’ve got the chaise lounge ready.

Micah Jayne is at micah@letters.cz

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