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Nice Noise

The best albums of fall 2009 find old bands learning new tricks— and a great new band using all the old ones

By John Brodeur

The Flaming Lips


An initial listen to the latest Flaming Lips release triggered an odd, but not unwarranted, gut reaction: “It’s like playing one disc of Zaireeka,” I thought. (Zaireeka was the band’s large-scale sonic experiment, a four-CD set that required all four discs to be played simultaneously.) After three extraordinarily layered releases, the “Fearless Freaks” have found strength in simplicity. It’s a long-gestating, sometimes maddening simplicity—droning, two-note jams give way to more droning, two-note jams; when the drums kick in and you expect the whole thing to blow apart, they exit just as abruptly. Wayne Coyne’s sparing vocals are rarely free of effects, rendering him just another instrument. Tones of free jazz and krautrock abound. They’ve finally made their Dark Side of the Moon, and yet there are no obvious singles among the 18 tracks. In other words, Embryonic is a true Album, in that no one track can easily be taken out of context. For an act of their vintage to be pushing the boundaries at this point in their career is outstanding; for them to be doing so with Warner Bros. money is practically inconceivable.

Embryonic finds Coyne writing with his third eye squeegeed clean. It’s a double-album-length meditation on the meaning of existence. (One could argue that the entire Lips catalog could be described as such.) At his most literal, on “I Can Be a Frog,” Coyne sings about all the different animals that “she can be,” as Yeah Yeah Yeahs frontwoman Karen O mimics back the creature sounds from the right speaker. Elsewhere, you’ll have to pull apart the bits and pieces you can comprehend, but we’ll just say that it’s basically the universe, examined. You know, nothing big.

Moreover, Embryonic is the culmination of the band’s fascination with using the studio as an instrument, their two-decades-long association with producer Dave Fridmann brought to glorious fruition. Songs, such as they are, reportedly were pieced together from jam sessions, putting the focus more on the process than the product. The results are gloriously weird and, often, jarringly disjointed—Coyne’s voice frequently sinks into the din, while harp strums and keyboard stabs blast twice as loud as the rest of the music. The album seems to have been mixed in 3-D, and the music seems to have been beamed down by aliens. Mission: Accomplished. Embryonic is a must-hear.

Pearl Jam


Casual Pearl Jam fans—those who jumped ship around 2002’s Riot Act, the band’s worst record—might have skipped the band’s 2006 self-titled disc, widely considered a “return to form,” though that compliment was referring to the band’s turn-of-the- century period. With Backspacer, the “grunge” godfathers seem intent on rewriting their story. It’s their best record since 1998’s Yield, thanks to the presence of producer Brendan O’Brien, who was allowed by the band to have a hand in picking apart the songs. The result is an economical and wholly replayable Pearl Jam album. Guitars intertwine and counterplay, rather than the typical “I’ll play chords while you solo” approach, and Eddie Vedder turns in his best set of performances yet. He sounds, for once in a long while, like he really tried to nail the melodies—which are, also, some of the strongest in the band’s deep catalog. There’s even a renewed interest in cover art, with This Modern World comic artist Tom Tomorrow’s intricate drawings a vast improvement over that clip-art avocado from the last album. Anyone who complains that Backspacer’s ballads sound too much like Vedder’s folky Into the Wild project is missing the point: This is the sound of a band putting all their cards on the table, and walking away with a royal flush.



Indie pop is the new indie rock, as evidenced by the recent popularity of bands like the Postelles and the Pains of Being Pure at Heart. Add to that list the San Francisco band Girls, who wrap their bedroom pop in many-colored paper without obscuring the classic sunny-day melodies underneath. The duo of Christopher Owens and JR White also imbue their songs with a snotty, foul-mouthed edge, as if to sing a simple love song would be too precious. (Oh, hipsters!) This dichotomy will be lost on some, but it’s pure musical dress-up—for example, listen to Owens’ fey delivery as he sings about being a “Big Bad Mean Motherfucker” over layers of Jesus and Mary Chain fuzz and a shoegaze-surf beat. The shoegaze revival doesn’t end there: The seven-minute “Hellhole Ratrace” slowly expands into a Ride-reminiscent, noise-saturated coda, with Owens intoning “I don’t wanna cry . . . come and dance with me” over layers of detuned guitars. Otherwise, shades of both British Invasions dominate (references to the Kinks and Elvis Costello are plentiful), with a dash of ’80s-John-Hughes-film- soundtrack-style sour pop (Psychedelic Furs, not Simple Minds) to boot. Why reinvent the wheel when there’s still gas in the tank?

Mission of Burma

The Sound The Speed The Light

Hang on, I need to check my watch. This is a 30-year-old band? Let’s assume that Mission of Burma’s 20-year hiatus was merely a time-stop. That still doesn’t account for how vital they sound on The Sound the Speed the Light, their third album back since reuniting in 2004. They’ve been together now longer than they were the first time around and they’re back to making music that’s equal parts forceful and fun—they sound like no other band but themselves. That means disjointed, difficult grooves that churn and fold over on themselves, bubbling into moments of punk-rock release. That’s drummer Peter Prescott’s bag, mostly—his outsider’s take on the instrument defines the Burma rhythm. But Roger Miller and Clint Conley take this approach as well—if you’ve ever seen the word “angular” employed in rock criticism, it’s because of these guys. The spirit of postpunk is alive in the trim fight songs (like opener “1, 2, 3, Partyy!”) but also in the expanse created by alternate tunings and long builds, and the melodic hooks which seem almost incongruous to the rest of the proceedings. And there are revelations to be found here: “Feed” is a tuneful anthem, and the Byrds-via-Stereolab three-part harmonies of “Slow Faucet” provide moments of beauty in a crawling, dissonant epic.

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