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Lips' Service

 

The Flaming Lips: Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots

Warner Bros., 2002

Rating: 4.6

 

 

Posted: July 21, 2002

By Laurence Station

Give the Flaming Lips credit for producing the year's great musical paradox: Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots is an optimistically fatalistic work. Head Lip Wayne Coyne, he of the Parking Lot Experiment and four-disc Zaireeka collection, offers up his most meditative, upbeat, and yet terrified set of left-of-center pop songs to date. The end result is a work that complements, and in some ways improves upon, the band's 1999 masterwork, The Soft Bulletin.

Whereas Soft Bulletin scratched the thematic surface of life's precariousness ("The Spiderbite Song" dealt with bassist Michael Ivins' near fatal car accident and a limb-threatening spider bite suffered by drummer/multi-instrumentalist Steven Drozd, while the eerily transcendental "Feeling Yourself Disintegrate" explored coming to terms with one's mortality), Yoshimi drills right down to the core of the issue. While not a concept album, per se, Yoshimi does repeatedly emphasize an essential theme: Life is short; seize the day. The skittering, techno-tweaked "Fight Test" opens the album in an engagingly hummable manner, declaring "It's all a mystery," which proves to be one of Yoshimi's vital points: Life's questions will always outnumber the answers, yet to quit searching for said answers is worse than blindingly accepting that most riddles will never be solved.

"In The Morning Of The Magicians" continues this thought, although with a far greater degree of fatalism, questioning whether one can ever truly know what it means to be loved: "The universe will have its way/ too powerful to master," sings Coyne, his voice near breaking, as if on the edge of total despair.

Coyne's optimism quickly returns on the funky, melodically soothing "Ego Tripping At The Gates Of Hell," where he challenges those looking for life's key moments to accept the fact that life is nothing but a collection of key moments, and how people shouldn't waste their time awaiting epiphanic insights, but stop and smell the roses every once in a while.

Elsewhere, Ivins and Drozd get a chance to shine on the carefully sequenced, moody "Are You A Hypnotist??" with its throbbing bass, punctuated horns and oddly effective bleats. While pondering whether hypnotism is self-induced, Coyne cleverly links the song with Yoshimi's larger celestial issues: "Waving your powers around/ the sun eclipsed behind the cloud."

But Yoshimi's true high points come near the end, with the gorgeous, string-laden, "Do You Realize?" one of the Flaming Lips' finest compositions. The song perfectly encapsulates the disc's inherent contradiction: If one stops to think about the world we live on, spinning around the sun in an unfathomably vast and empty space, one's sheer insignificance quickly becomes overwhelming. But in a classic example of turning lemons into lemonade, Coyne reaffirms the beauty of immediacy: Life is fleeting, so enjoy the moment. "All We Have Is Now" takes a decidedly different and more fantastical tack; a man's future self appears before him and explains that he has no future to look forward to. Proven by the fact that the future self has escaped to an alternate reality in order to avoid extinction, thus guaranteeing that the individual truly has no future to look forward to. Rarely has the notion that tomorrow is not guaranteed been so amusingly presented.

Interestingly, the trio of songs involving the heroine, Yoshimi, and her battle against the pink robots (well, just one, actually) has the least to do with the rest of the album, either thematically or sonically. "One More Robot/Sympathy 3000-21" finds said robot set to fight Yoshimi in gladiatorial combat, "feeling a synthetic kind of love" for his opponent. The stuttering, acoustically driven "Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots Pt. 1" has Yoshimi training for the big showdown, encouraged by her fellow humans to stop the rise of the evil robots by besting Unit 3000-21. The concluding "Pt. 2" is a punchy, dramatically orchestrated instrumental recounting the battle, with the robot throwing the fight, allowing Yoshimi to win and, thus, reaffirming humanity's superiority over the sentient machines. That the Lips included this set of songs and titled the record after them makes one ponder if an entire album centered around the story was planned, then scrapped as larger, more metaphysical ideas blossomed. The inclusion of such a lighthearted tale (aided greatly by the energetic vocalizations of the Boredoms' Yoshimi P-we) does serve to effectively offset the deeper musings on the album, thus reinforcing the weightier themes by providing a noticeably whimsical contrast.

Overall, Dave Fridmann's production is top notch, layering on the bells and whistles (or squiggles and scratches, in this case) with just the right amount of levity. Where Soft Bulletin was bombastic and loud, Yoshimi is comparatively quiet and yearning. It's also the most mature Lips album, contemplative yet still defiantly experimental in terms of sound and melody. Toss in a high replay value and you've got 2002's best pop album to date.

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