Brand New Second Hand

[B]The Flaming Lips[/B] are making music that no-one else is anywhere near to touching  intricate, melodic and starkly beautiful...

Spring ’99, and it finally feels like The Flaming Lips‘ time has arrived. Despite fashioning incredible pop symphonies since 1985, they’ve been consistently overlooked, at least commercially, until now. Given the success of [a]Mercury Rev[/a]’s ‘Deserter’s Songs’ LP (and given that Jonathan Donahue used to be The Flaming Lips‘ guitarist), the door at last seems open for them to claim the credit they deserve.

This is their first ‘proper’ live show since 1996 – in the intervening period they’ve been travelling the world with their boombox sound experiments – and they’re here at Texas’ South By South West Festival to preview tunes from their brilliant, forthcoming LP ‘The Soft Bulletin’, a record already compared to The Beach Boys‘ great lost album ‘Smile’, for the sheer reach and innovation of the music it contains.

The first thing you notice is that they’re down to a three-piece. Ronald Jones, the guitarist who provided the signature screaming guitar squalls for the band, is no longer a Lip. You may think that should have signalled the end of the line, but in fact the loss has propelled the Lips onto a higher plane. The layers of guitars are now replaced by layers of keyboards – what was once Thurston Moore is now Brian Wilson. What was once deafening, is now dazzling.

This is partly because Steven Drozd is no longer on drums, but at the front of the stage, adding guitar, pedal steel and keyboards. The sounds that swell into an orchestral wave washing over the fanatical crowd. Strictly speaking though, there is actually still a drummer. Steven is also there at the back – projected playing drums onto a screen behind the band, amid the crazy film loops and transmissions from outer space.

The next thing you notice is Wayne Coyne. With distinguished grey hair, he’s the orchestra conductor from The Twilight Zone. Wayne leads the crowd and the band, with a dinosaur puppet and handfuls of glitter. In between he strikes a gigantic Chinese gong, adding impact to the almost anthemic quality of the new material.

The other important development is the Headphone Experiment: members of the crowd wandering around wearing FM receivers and headphones. The sounds are transmitted through the PA, and via a designated FM frequency. You get to watch the live Flaming Lips experience, with the added advantage of all stereo can offer – cleaner sound, panning of instruments, all the volume you want. Just like having the concert at home.

Then there are the songs. There’s ‘She Don’t Use Jelly’, one of the few relics from the past, and we are treated to ‘The Soft Bulletin’ in all its fractured, psychedelic glory. ‘Race For The Prize’ is sensational, and deserves to be a summer hit with its massed choruses of heavenly keyboards and interstellar guitar effects. ‘The Gash’, meanwhile, is a battle march for the millennium generation, melodramatic to the extreme, and ‘Buggin” is the purest pop song The Flaming Lips have ever written.

The emphasis has shifted now to such an extent that whereas once The Jesus And Mary Chain and Sonic Youth were obvious prime influences, now it’s harder to pin down. The Flaming Lips are making music that no-one else is anywhere near to touching – intricate, melodic and starkly beautiful. They’re rewriting the rule book yet again. As an example of the sheer depth of possibilities that music can offer, they’re currently unbeatable. They arrive in Britain in a couple of weeks. Make sure you don’t miss them.