Flaming Lips Play Full 'Soft Bulletin,' Initiate Confetti Orgy at Noise Pop

Indie rock's Willy Wonkas put away the hamster ball for intimate Noise Pop show

Flaming Lips Wayne Coyne Noise Pop
[Photo: Paige K. Parsons]
WRITTEN BY
Rob Harvilla

The Flaming Lips
Bimbo’s 365 Club
San Francisco, CA
Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Yes to the confetti cannons; no to the dudes in bear suits. Yes to the overzealous smoke machine; no to the Wayne Coyne-sized hamster ball. Verily, the Flaming Lips attempted to go relatively minimal for this relatively small club gig, playing their 1999 cartoon-psych masterpiece The Soft Bulletin in full using only the bare essentials. Plus, y'know, a green-alien-skinned harp, a gong encrusted with epileptic neon lights, and a noisy interlude wherein Coyne brandished giant laser hands. Even after stripping down considerably, they had plenty of gaudy, exuberant layers left. Pity their roadies.

The Soft Bulletin is ripe for the whole-album-in-concert deal, a maximalist pomp-rock fantasia of absurdist grandeur but plainspoken, humanizing warmth; the pulverizing drums and orchestral mayhem never overwhelming songs about say, relief that crippling drug addiction didn't break up your band, or contemplating your own mortality while folding laundry. It turned the Lips from lovable noise-rock fuckups into unlikely indie-pop superstars; it's also the last record where their songs weren't drowned out by their (admittedly wildly enjoyable) onstage spectacle. Coyne's on the record as willing to indulge a few canned keyboard parts if it frees up more time and energy for interactive naked-lady videos, etc., but tonight, with a full band hellbent on personally recreating every nuance of a heavily nuanced record — drummer-turned-keyboard/guitar-wunderkind Steven Drozd has his hands full for two solid hours — they proudly prize the audio over the visual.

Still, though, the surrealist smoke machine/confetti cannon bombardment unleashed at the raucous onset of "Race for the Prize" is a moment of stupefying, overwhelming joy. Tonight the record's louder, gaudier moments retain that triumphalism: "The Spark That Bled" a garage-prog mini-suite of thoughtful enormity, the near-metallic "Buggin' " lovable and lumbering and charmingly graceless. But as usual with this sort of thing, it's the less-celebrated deep cuts — the ones you once forgot — that you most fondly remember afterward. Even relatively toned down, it all gets to be a little much after 90 minutes or so, making wordless space-rock lullaby "The Observer" an invaluable oasis of calm; the ruminative "Suddenly Everything Has Changed" expresses convincing bewilderment and awe without aid of a zillion-dollar prop budget forcing you to share it.

But a Flaming Lips show's true focal point is always Coyne, who's mesmerizing even when significantly dialed down, treating us to lengthy, heavy between-song monologues. Dude isn't afraid to go dark, the tender death-contemplative shuffle "Feeling Yourself Disintegrate" preceded by his announcements that, "You can't help but come to the conclusion that life is more horrible than it is beautiful" and "All your friends are dying, and all your animals, and all your things." (Cue deeply concerned audience murmurs.) That he can sell this as typical rock-concert celebratory uplift makes him just as good a salesmen as he is an artist. They encore with "Do You Realize??," easily the cheeriest tune to (again!) point out "that everyone you know someday will die." A devastating blow softened, mercifully, by the confetti cannon.

And thus begins Noise Pop week in San Francisco, a 20-year institution of multi-night, multi-venue indie-rock splendor (highlights this year span from Sleigh Bells to Bob Mould doing Sugar's Copper Blue). It all has a slight Bay Area tilt, as per our openers, the Rogue Wave side project Release the Sunbird, the blindingly affable Zach Rogue jangling sweetly and spinning off rapturous boy-girl vocal harmonies and turning Talking Heads' "Road to Nowhere" from a neurotic death march into just another life-affirming drive down the coast. Way more "pop" than "noise," all this, it's true, but inspired all the same, leaving you refreshed and revitalized and ready to go home and spend some quality time with your animals. They won't be around forever.

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