What is a studio masterpiece album? To me, it's a record that reaches beyond the traditional boundary of studio constraints. The musicians and producers who've made this type of record have been able to think outside of the box and have found innovative ways to create an expanded sonic environment. The Beach Boys' Pet Sounds, The Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, The Beatles' Revolver and Pink Floyd's The Dark Side of the Moon are all albums I consider to be studio masterpieces. I'll put The Flaming Lips' The Soft Bulletin in that realm as well.
When The Soft Bulletin came out in 1999, it was a huge musical turning point for The Flaming Lips. Not only was it a break into more mainstream press coverage, but it showcased what the band was capable of in a studio environment. It was a departure from their "alternative" sound and it entered them into another sonic dimension- but it was still accessible and sweet, with great hooks.
The Flaming Lips formed in 1983 and after ten years of playing and making records, they scored their first alternative hit with "She Don't Use Jelly" in 1993. Then came some bizarre experimentation with 1997's 4-CD boombox experiment Zaireeka. Some critics thought Wayne Coyne had lost his mind with that endeavor. The Flaming Lips pleasantly surprised and blew everyone away with the synthy, psychedelic, rockin' album, The Soft Bulletin. It was one of the best records to be released in 1999.
"Race for the Prize" is the opening track and now staple of The Flaming Lips' live show. They generally kick off or end their set list with this classic Lips song (usually accompanied by more confetti than a Super Bowl victory). Whenever I hear "Race for the Prize" on the radio, I expect confetti to start blowing out of every ventilation shaft within 50 feet of me.
"A Spoonful Weighs a Ton" takes you away to some bizarre far away, children's fairytale land, with sweet piano, flute and light synths, with Wayne Coyne's voice as your bizarre narrator/tour guide. Then the deep, bassy synth and the drums kick in. It makes for an amazing instrumental hook and you can feel the low notes ring throughout your body. Maximum volume is recommended.
Another personal highlight on this record for me is "Buggin." The Flaming Lips are from Oklahoma, but this song is the perfect accompaniment to a night at the cabin (or a backyard campfire) in Minnesota. The music sounds like summer. The lyrics sound like summer:
All those bugs buzzin' 'round your head
Well, they fly in the air as you comb your hair
And the summertime will make you itch the mosquito bites
The hardest part about making a great studio creation is that it's hard to recreate in a live setting. The Flaming Lips did their best while touring in 2011, playing The Soft Bulletin live for audiences. I was able to hear it at The Sasquatch Festival at the Gorge in Washington. It's not a perfect recreation, but for anyone that enjoys the Flaming Lips live experience, it was a lot of fun.
I don't criticize The Lips for not being able to make The Soft Bulletin sound as magical on stage as the recording on CD or vinyl. The Beatles even would've had a hard time bringing Sgt. Pepper to the stage. There's a reason The Beatles became a studio-only band: for them it became about the creation of music, not the performance. The Flaming Lips have been experimental, freaky and psychedelic for years now... they just know how to exist in both the studio world and on the live stage. They know how to give fans a taste of both experiences.
The Flaming Lips' The Soft Bulletin is an essential listen for any musichead, and I invite you to add it to your collection if it's not already there.
Jill Riley co-hosts weekday mornings on The Current with Steve Seel, 6-10 a.m. She joined The Current when the station launched in 2005, fresh from her college radio station, KVSC-FM, Saint Cloud State University. She has hosted a variety of DJ timeslots on The Current, from overnights to Saturday night's "Radio Free Current" show. She is also known as Savage Animal of the Minnesota RollerGirls' Garda Belts team.