The Flaming Lips' The Soft Bulletin - this is imaginative, fanciful music. Frontman Wayne Coyne leads an imaginary orchestra through 58 minutes of atmospheric melodies. Backed by a ridiculous array of instruments (pianos, church bells, xylophones, strings) and masterful studio magic, the Lips have achieved a fully enveloping sound. This, however, makes them nearly impossible to define into one category. Being the music neophyte I am, I would take a stab at the dark in this and call it 'indie pop', to simplify terms. From the first track, however, one would see that this is not your ordinary 'indie pop' CD.
Probably the first thing you notice when listening to this album is the drums; this is one of the few albums where drums play so large a role in the music. Steven Drozd is the drummer (though percussionist may be a more appropriate title), and uses a vast array of percussion instruments to create an environmental feel for the song. Almost more than any other single instrument, the drums can change the feel of the song, and rather than just improving it somewhat, can upgrade it from good to great with a single fill.
The Soft Bulletin starts off with Race for the Prize (remix), which almost gives you the feeling of a race. It's one of the most upbeat, poppiest songs on the CD, and a fine choice for the opening track.
Following that is A Spoonful Weighs a Ton, which starts off with a little introduction of what seems to be flutes and harps. Coyne's voice comes in as soft as ever, chanting a few nonsensical rhyming lines. A few choruses from background hummers later, the song explodes. Well, explodes in the context of this CD. A single hammered note from the guitar is tossed into the foreground, with hard-hitting base and drums unfolding in the background. This is the first song where the listener really realizes the layering and distortion occurring with the drums. Drozd layers his drums until the lick would be impossible to play with one person. Quite an impressive effect. Though my least favorite song on this CD, it can stand next to most songs out there and win hands down.
Next is one of my favorite songs on the CD, if because of its sheer volume. The Spark That Bled changes tempos, and, in fact, changes completely a few times throughout the song. It starts off with a less than dramatic opening with a simple hi-hat drumbeat. Soon, though, the horns enter into the background along with a chorus, and the track picks up drama and credibility. Soon an almost Amazonian melody kicks in, with fragmental drum layers. This is one of the fullest moments of the Bulletin. Next, Coyne sings "I stood up and I said yeah". Yet more drama ensues, until the song changes completely, causing you to check if it's a new track. A simple guitar lick backed by relentless drums make this turn a complete surprise. Next the song breaks down to its opening form, and finally ends, leaving you breathless.
One enhanced, impossible drumbeat later, The Spiderbite Song begins. Piano and plucked guitar are backed by this little drum lick. This being the first Flaming Lips song I ever heard, it left quite an impression. I fell in love with Drozd's percussion. The Spiderbite Song is a love song speaking of a spiderbite his lover got, an accident she had, and how he is glad it didn't kill her; "I'm so glad that it didn't destroy you, how sad that would be, cuz if it destroyed you, it would destroyed me." A simple but nice love line.
Next is another poppy love song, Buggin'. "The buzz of love, is busy buggin' you." An interesting choice to put two insect-themed songs next to each other. The drums make this song, and you end up paying more attention to them and the buzzing bass than the guitars and pianos.
Next comes What Is the Light? It starts off with a simple bass drum backing with a ringing piano chord. The drums kick in and end the boring (but appropriate) beginning, and liven up the song. This song is more atmospheric than any of its predecessors on the record; it's chock-full of wispy philosiphizing and distant, drawn-out vocals.
Following is The Observer, once again opening with a bass drum kick. Softly covering it are subtle guitars and pianos, with horns joining in later. The song continues to layer thicker and thicker, with strings and humming eventually following suit. It's an instrumental, and is even more atmospheric than its predecessors. It doesn't need vocals; it stands quite well on its own.
Waitin' For a Superman is a story told with Coyne's usual humor and lightness. "Tell everbody waiting for Superman/that they should try to hold on as best they can/he hasn't dropped them, forgot them or anything/it's just too heavy for Superman to lift." Yet another example of Wayne Coyne's fine lyrics. Rolling drums and pianos dominate this song (with a church bell tolling at some points throughout the song).
Next comes another slow, atmospheric song, Suddenly Everything Has Changed. More soft, distant vocals drift over heavy, metallic drums. After Coyne utters "Suddenly, everything has changed", an orchestra comes in to play a sad-sounding fill. The guitar follows, in an equally lonesome offering. Soon the song starts up again, only to be followed by this sad interlude again.
The Gash starts with a dramatic oohing and aahing of a chorus, with bells aplenty. One pounding piano fill later, the Gospel-like chorus chants some lines. Coyne offers a question between verses; "Will the fight for our sanity/become the fight of our lives?" Yet another solid offering.
Feeling Yourself Disintegrate starts off sounding almost like something the Smashing Pumpkins would offer in one of their softer songs. This changes in a hurry, though, when Coyne enters with echoing vocals and strumming guitars. The percussion enters two minutes into the song, and only enhances the echoing feeling. It's a trippy and lonesome song, seemingly far off in the distance.
A piano with crickets chirping in the background opens up Sleeping on the Roof. This instrumental sounds pretty much the same throughout, offering nothing special as the other tracks had.
Next comes Race for the Prize. Interestingly, the Lips chose to put the original song later in the CD than the remix. There really is not that great a difference, just the effects of the drums and the vocals are reduced. I'm not sure why they even put both versions on here. Maybe they thought the song was good enough to hear twice.
The closing track is Waitin' for a Superman (remix), which, again, is not terribly different. It is, however, a satisfying ending to the CD. The final chord seems to sum up the feeling of the entire album.
The Soft Bulletin is a masterpiece; some of the Lips' finest work. Coyne's soft, philosophical, at times faltering vocals swirl over a veritable orchestra of instruments and layering. The percussion is incredible, adding a unique depth to the album that few others possess. All of the songs are good; there is no true filler here. You will appreciate every song, moreso each time you hear them. This album's longevity is impressive; I find something new every time I hear it. If you're a fan of Modest Mouse, Built to Spill, Pavement, Dinosaur Jr., or any other of these fine bands, you will enjoy this CD; I guarantee it.