Review: Flaming Lips at LC

Staff Writer
Columbus Alive

This could have been exceedingly stale.

The psychedelic cartoon extravaganza the Flaming Lips created a decade ago in an attempt to subvert rock 'n' roll formula has become a formula of its own. Wayne Coyne's giant inflatable hamster ball, confetti-filled balloons and animal-costumed backup dancers are as familiar to Lips lifers as twirling drumsticks and windmill guitar strums to your average arena rock fan. The group still starts its shows with (the admittedly marvelous) "Race for the Prize," the same song they've been opening with for the past 10 years.

Keeping that bizarre shtick intact has cost the Lips some fans to be sure, as some veteran followers itch for a new paradigm shift, something to shake up the band's universe as much as this current magical mystery tour revolutionized them circa Soft Bulletin. Others ache for another dip in the deep well of now-neglected '90s alt-rock nuggets, seeking nostalgia rather than innovation.

But even if Coyne's confetti gun has shooed away some of his band's former core, his megaphone has beckoned boatloads of new fans into the fold, many of whom packed into LC Pavilion's outdoor amphitheater Friday to see this spectacle for the first time. Their eyes widened, their jaws dropped, and giant grins spread across their faces. Few experiences bring out childlike glee in grown men and women like this drug-fueled carnival.

It could have been stale. It wasn't.

In fact, the classic Lips shtick provided some of the evening's most satisfying moments. If anything undercut the evening's happy revelry, it was the parade of melodically challenged psychedelic slow-burners that halted all momentum during what should have been the concert's climactic stretch.

The Lips' latest, Embryonic, is another left turn in a career full of them. Built on atmosphere and sonics more than lyrics and melodies, it's the least immediate, least poppy album they've released since before 90210. And while it's too slippery to nail down after two or three listens, the album seems like a pleasant departure from the increasingly kitschy direction they were moving in before.

That said, the new material is a significant disruption when a huge glut of it is thrust between fist-raising gibberish anthems like "The Yeah Yeah Yeah Song" and "She Don't Use Jelly." Embryonic's standout track, "Silver Trembling Hands," was shuffled into the early going, and it measured up well to staples like "Race For the Prize" and "Fight Test." But the series of cuts from the new double LP that comprised the bulk of the set's second half fell flat. It felt like an endless vamp on what should have been a pallette-cleansing interlude. At best it was a nice opportunity to catch up with an old pal in the audience.

A few more minor annoyances threatened to mar the experience, foremost among them Coyne's constant urging of the crowd to get crazier and make more noise because it would make for a better concert DVD. Just do your job, man, and they'll go crazy if they dig it. Also, there's no need to follow so many songs with a piano-led sing-along reprise. One song per show is enough. And "Fight Test" would have been better in full epic splendor rather than the minimal acoustic take the band delivered.

All these nitpicks could have added up to a lackluster Lips show, and it's true the group didn't seem to be hitting on all cylinders Friday night. But the sheer exuberance of their cartoon wonderland is enough to wash away mountains of jaded cynicism. Did I have fun? You bet I had fun!

The tried-and-true was what made this worth watching: Coyne crowd-surfing in his bubble, confetti flying everywhere, Yoshimi combating those evil-natured robots. It was all highly familiar, yes, but in the best way possible. So what if they box themselves into a world they can call their own?