Essential New Music: The Flaming Lips’ “Heady Nuggs 20 Years After Clouds Taste Metallic 1994-1997”

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How many groups can plausibly claim, “Hey man, we really nailed it on that seventh LP, right?” I mean, how many bands even make it to a seventh album (much less go on to record another 12 beyond that)? Or have a character on Beverly Hills, 90210 fête them by telling his pals, “I’ve never been a big fan of alternative music, but these guys rocked the house”?

Ladies and gentlemen, you have now entered the faint twilight realm of Oklahoma City’s Flaming Lips, in which equal parts Brian Wilson, Butthole Surfers and classic-radio rock (Beatles, Hendrix, Pink Floyd) fight it out for sonic supremacy. This album—a 20th anniversary release that includes two rarities discs and a contemporaneous live show from Seattle among the flotsam and jetsam in its deluxe boxed set—falls directly between the pylons of the band’s fluky early-’90s hit “She Don’t Use Jelly” and its latter-day opus The Soft Bulletin; and as such, it shows a collective in full-blown transition, not terribly different from its early space-rockin’ serrated guitar origins, but not quite yet the pop-leaning psych-zeppelin it would later become.

The songs are truly butterfl ies about to burst forth from the cocoon—mood pieces such as the creaky, Sparklehorse-like “The Abandoned Hospital Ship,” throwaway pop ditties with amazing melodies like “This Here Giraffe,” Pet Sounds-alikes like “Christmas At The Zoo,” faux-soundtrack fodder such as the absolutely gorgeous “Bad Days” (which ultimately did end up on the Batman Forever soundtrack)—compositions that were clearly attempting to move beyond the freak-rawk of the band’s early days, but weren’t yet emotionally sophisticated enough to qualify as the sort of material the Lips would routinely churn out with alarming regularity circa The Soft Bulletin and Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots.

So, what you have with Clouds Taste Metallic is that perfect reissue candidate: the Overlooked Classic, an album teeming with gorgeous melodies, graceful songcraft and unrealized potential that had no particular expectations attached to it, and yet retained the full magic of its mid-period lineup, replete with vignettes about zoo animals, outer space and surgical outcomes. Before guitarist Ronald Jones split to undertake a spiritual odyssey (or fl ee Steven Drozd’s increasingly scary drug use, before the latter almost lost a hand after being bitten by a spider, an event memorialized later on “The Spiderbite Song”), Michael Ivins became a hit-and-run victim, or singer/Chief Lip Wayne Coyne began experimenting with boomboxes, parking lots and quadrophonic recording techniques, there was this: perhaps the most charming, nakedly beautiful and genuinely moving music of the Lips’ career.

—Corey duBrowa

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