Recently I have got totally and utterly into The Flaming Lips. I bought their 2002 album, Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots, when it first came out and (partly because I was low on funds at the time) listened to it again and again till it became one of my all-time favourite albums. (Whose names I precede in iTunes with an asterisk for quick access. My iPod has over 800 albums on it, which takes some scroll-wheeling through.) Oddly, considering how much I loved that album, it took me a while to buy anything else by them, and when I did get The Soft Bulletin (1999) and Clouds Taste Metallic (1995), only a few tracks really sunk in. Then, quite suddenly, last month something just clicked and I’ve been unable to listen to anyone else. I’ve tracked down rarities and oddities (the Fight Test and Ego Tripping At The Gates of Hell EPs, the limited edition Fearless Freaks CD, and of course the Fearless Freaks documentary, to name a few), and slowly upped my iTunes star ratings of their songs from three to four to quite a few five-star songs. The Soft Bulletin, which I originally felt almost cold towards, has pretty much joined Yoshimi in my absolute all time faves.
But even then, I was sure that I’d never buy their Zaireeka album. Why? Well, Zaireeka is a 4-CD set with 8 songs on. Now, I’ve nothing against this. I own Yes’s Tales From Topographic Oceans (4 songs on 2 CDs) and am not embarrassed to say I listen to it and enjoy it. But Zaireeka’s eight-songs-on-four-CDs only amount to 45 minutes of music. Its 4 CDs are designed to be played on four different CD players, at the same time.
But I took the plunge. The more I learned about the band, the more I realised Zaireeka represents a musical turning point, taking them from the surrealistic poppy grunge of Clouds Taste Metallic and its forerunners to a much more thoughtful, much more musically open approach to song-writing in The Soft Bulletin and beyond. Every so often, artists of any sort who are serious about their work go through phases of experimentation and emerge transformed, with new directions, new freedoms, and often much stronger for it, but it’s rare that such experimental phases are laid out for us to look at and try to see what was going on. (JG Ballard publishing his “condensed novels” is an example.) For the Flaming Lips, Zaireeka was that transformative moment. (The name partly comes from the word eureka.)
The four CDs arrived yesterday, and I’ve just finished my first listen. It wasn’t a full listen. I played one CD on my hi-fi, one through my TV using my DVD player, and one through my computer, meaning the fourth was unplayed. (The only way I could play it would have been to have plugged my iPod into my guitar amp, but I knew I’d already find it difficult enough to start three CD players simultaneously (one remote control in each hand, plus an elbow to hit the space-bar on my computer), without having to click an iPod at the same time. That’s why people have Zaireeka parties. The logistics are easier.) Even then, the three CDs didn’t start in sync, because not all three players responded with the same speed. The first track I listened to, the three players were up to a couple of seconds out, but after that, a few quick stabs on various pause buttons brought things more into line.
Zaireeka’s CDs aren’t meant to be played in perfect sync, anyway. Wayne Coyne, the main vocalist and the bloke who had the idea in the first place, says in his liner notes that he found that even when playing two identical tracks on two CD players, the sound would occasionally go in and out of phase, as the players played at slightly different speeds. With Zaireeka, the idea is that such real-world glitches would bring in some randomness to turn each listen into more of a unique experience — and it’s definitely not a passive experience. There was a certain amount of pausing and playing, adjusting of volumes, and walking round the room finding the best place to hear all three sound sources at once.
As for the music, it’s difficult to judge on one listen. I thought the more successful tracks were those where one CD played what could be considered the main track and the others added embellishments, sometimes by playing quite weird, and seemingly unfitting accompaniments that nevertheless sort of worked because they were coming from a different direction. It was one of those situations where sounds from outside start to include themselves in the music. Usually, for me, Hawkwind is about the only band who can take on a police siren, car screeches, train brakes, arguing neighbours, and so on, without it jolting you out of their musical world, because I’m used to hearing weird sounds in the middle of Hawkwind tracks. Well, it happened with Zaireeka too, as if the world were conspiring to perform alongside the Flaming Lips.
The best song of the lot was the last, “The Big Ol’ Bug Is The New Baby Now”, in which, on one CD, Wayne Coyne tells a story about his dogs and their predilection for tearing things apart, while another CD plays a pretty much conventional rhythm section backing, and the third comes in with sound effects (dog barks); then all three CDs go into a multi-part chiming vocal chorus, singing the song’s title at different times, to produce a sort of “Row, row, row your boat” effect.
The idea with Zaireeka was for the band to introduce its listeners to new ways of listening to, and participating in, their music. (Brian Eno felt the same sort of thing when he started making ambient music.) Of course, since 1997, when the album was released, further “new ways” have come about. It’s much more likely, for instance, that today’s purchasers of Zaireeka have the computing power and hard drive space to rip the four CDs and mix them down into stereo. Okay, it’s perhaps against the spirit of the thing, but sometimes you want to just sit down and listen.