Album: The Flaming Lips The Flaming Lips and Heady Fwends (Bella Union)

The Lips are a hit with a little help from their fwends

Few bandleaders drive their combos with quite the quirky, benign industry that Wayne Coyne brings to The Flaming Lips. Nothing seems off-limits: concept albums, animal costumes, absurd multi-disc experiments, even a (literally) homemade sci-fi movie created on a shoestring budget from Blue Peter materials. 

The Flaming Lips and Heady Fwends was prompted by another bit of Lips conceptual continuity, the series of collaborative EPs they recorded over the last year with artists such as Yoko Ono and Prefuse 73. The title is a self-mocking reference to the rotten Sixties debacle Lord Sutch and Heavy Friends – but this is actually one of the Lips' more coherent efforts, despite its wild diversity and devil-may-care attitude.

Typically, they appear to have managed to impose a conceptual framework of sorts on the various contributions, something to do with the shift from analogue to digital and its effect on humanity. Unless I'm reading too much into tracks like "Ashes in the Air", where Justin (Bon Iver) Vernon's airy high register soars blissfully over a slow, funereal swirl of synth and electro drum-rolls, keening "We are ashes in the air/You can hear us anywhere". Or the shrill, galloping electro-rocker "2012 (You Must Be Upgraded)", with its persistent robotic title instruction riding roughshod over Ke$ha's pleading vocal. 

Elsewhere, Nick Cave declaims "You, Man? Human???" over a constipated trudge of guitars, chimes and chorale, Jim James battles gritty fuzz-chords and tortuous electronic noise in the majestically psychedelic "That Ain't My Trip", and the Lips devise their own amped-up take on Calexico-style south-western atmospheres for the sci-fi epic "I'm Working at NASA on Acid".

But the most unusual alliance of all is that with Erykah Badu, adrift for 10 minutes in an achingly slow, portentous chord-scape on a version of "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face": initially incongruous and underwhelming, it develops a monumental power as it proceeds. 

Download: 2012; Ashes in the Air; The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face; I'm Working at NASA on Acid

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