Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Listening Session: The Flaming Lips Doing The Dark Side of the Moon

There’s a conceit in rock music that one has to write one’s own songs to be considered seriously. Cover bands are for proms and bar mitzvahs. It wasn’t always like this. The first album by the Beatles, the Stones and Dylan were nothing but covers; the great Motown albums of the 60s were mainly penned by the songwriting team of Holland-Dozier-Holland; going further back, great popular singers such as Sinatra and Ella built their reputations as interpreters of songs and practitioners of the craft of singing rather than as songwriters. So why is there such currency given to artists performing original material these days? I have a half-formed theory involving our baby-boomer-driven solipsistic culture and mass-Freudian group-think. But that is neither here nor there to appreciate The Flaming Lips’ new album Doing the Dark Side of the Moon.

Like all great covers, the Lips’ album stands on its own and also makes the listener see the original in a new way. With respect to the latter point, this listener realized how English the original is after listening to the Flaming Lips version. The original is infused with a particularly English pastoral sensibility in its ruminations on mortality. Think A. E. Housman’s A Shropshire Lad. The pace and mood of the album, as well as quaint touches like the clocks that go off at the start of “Time”, reinforce this pastoral vision. One can imagine if Wordsworth were alive in the 1970s, he’d be one of those smoking weed, staring at stars inside a planetarium while listening to The Dark Side of the Moon.

The Flaming Lips’ DSOTM strips all Englishness from the album—quite literally in “Time”, where the original line “hanging on in quiet desperation is the English way” ends with the word “desperation”. Instead of an album that elicits pot-smoking and gazing at stars, the Lips’ DSOTM conjures a Benzedrine-fueled ride down a super-highway. In other words, it sounds more American. The transformation is created by a faster pace, more aggressive rhythms, and arrangements that rely more electronic processing. Otherwise, the new album, from what I can tell, is close to a note-for-note, word-for-word cover of the original album. More significantly, if Pink Floyd’s vision is dominated by a wistful, resigned sense of decline of the individual soul under the force of modern dehumanizing civilization, the Flaming Lips’ version sounds more defiant and optimistic. The original album ends with a drum simulating a heartbeat and of course the heartbeat stops when the album ends. The new album maintains the beat but it sounds more like a mechanical valve inside a spaceship. Are we dead or embarking on a new journey? Perhaps we should ask the child on the cover of the Lips album shooting rainbow rays from his eyes.

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