A band has to grow into its man-sized hamster ball. As Oklahomans the Flaming Lips became a band that could turn its shows into an irradiated carnival of confetti and light and pull off the cosmic-scale anthem "Do You Realize??," all kinds of other expansions were taking place in its sound and songwriting. One of them was that Wayne Coyne, Steven Drozd, Michael Ivins and company got better at exploring those less anthemic, more elusive spaces.
Before stretching your arms to loft Coyne's plastic crowd-surfing bubble over your head during the inaugural Pondamonium festival at Warner Park, reflect on a few of the Lips' wonderfully subdued moments.
The 1997 album Zaireeka is an invitation to cacophony. It comprises four CDs, meant to be played simultaneously, and probably meant to grow more slippery as it progresses, given the low odds that you and three friends and your CD players will coordinate just-so. It also offers, on "A Machine in India," a preview of the acoustic-symphonic balladeer Coyne would grow into over the course of The Soft Bulletin and Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots.
Granted, the song is said to be a meditation on the menstrual cycle and openly references "bleeding vaginas." Yet the important thing to hear is Coyne's voice straining its way toward tuneful refinement. His melody is sweetly mournful enough to stay intact even as the track's layers spill out of four different sets of speakers.
Another way to tempt the noise gods is to pair the Lips with the transcendently punishing Providence duo Lightning Bolt, as on this track from 2012's Flaming Lips and Heady Fwends, a compilation of off-the-wall collaborations. First, though, it's another eerie song about the big questions: "I'll ask the sky/Does it know why?" Coyne keeps calling "why?" as Lightning Bolt's bass and drums come in, somehow maintaining the song's forlorn air above a fury that's usually all-engulfing.
The Flaming Lips' 2009 attempt to re-create Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon with fellow Oklahoma band Stardeath and White Dwarfs can at times feel like a missed opportunity. But it's a deftly nailed opportunity on "Great Gig in the Sky," a song that, like the Lips themselves, has an air of both contemplation and desperate emotional seeking.
At first it's just a gentle take on the song's chords, with Henry Rollins playing the part of the crusty old man who says he's not frightened of dying. It's Peaches, of all people, who pierces to the heart of things with her guttural approximation of Clare Torry's wordless vocal performance, as the music briefly throws out the original tune's rhythm in favor of raucously bonking around.
Yoshimi goes in for so many climaxes that it's a relief when the 2002 album doesn't try to end with yet another. This closing instrumental's mellow beat, reverb-heavy guitar and distant horns finally offer a chance to slow down and digest things like fighting evil robots and getting sued by Cat Stevens.
Similarly, while building toward those ambitious outpourings on 1999's The Soft Bulletin, the Lips saw the value in giving people a breather, if only at the very end. "Sleeping on the Roof" has much more of a chill to it than "Pavonis Mons," and that only helps to bring out an anxious quality that shows up throughout Bulletin. Even the album's most triumphant tracks, "The Spark That Bled" and "The Gash," have their moments of sorrow and doubt. The Lips' ability to keep those feelings in the mix only helped their music to become more touching and convincing as it got more sweeping and glossy.
Any good psychedelic band should have a current of unease and disturbance somewhere down there. That current often seems the main attraction of 2009's Embryonic. As raw as the album can get, it doesn't abandon everything the Lips have figured out about making elegant, shiny pop. The bass tone on "Gemini Syringes" threatens a volatile outburst, but what comes instead are harmonized chants about "Gemini psalms" and snippets of a German mathematician talking. The Lips don't always have to peak or blow up - this song just patiently shimmers.