Saturday, May 15, 2010

Modern Classics: "Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots"

Herein is the first installment of an ongoing series that I will call "Modern Classics." This series will take a closer look at some of my favorite albums that have come out in the last ten (or so) years. I consider them so good, in fact, that I have deemed them "classic." I realize that it may seem like an oxymoron to call a relatively new album a "classic," but that's ok. That's why these are "modern classics." ;)

I'll admit that I had my doubts about the Flaming Lips' 2002 LP Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots after reading about it in a Rolling Stone "Best of the Decade" list. How could an album with such a ridiculous name be any good? Would it be some kind of geeky tribute to a Japanese anime show? My doubts were quickly laid to rest with my first listen.

The music itself is an intoxicating combination of super-catchy vocal and guitar hooks that are set to a relaxing vibe of electronic effects, unusual guitar tones, and head-nodding beats. It's hard to over-emphasize the delightfully easy-going mood of these songs (with the exception of the explosive fourth track, the instrumental "Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots pt. 2"). Lead singer Wayne Coyne's voice has a lot to do with this--it is high-pitched yet syrupy smooth, and there is a subtle quality of wonderment and innocence in them, despite some often heavy subject matter in the lyrics (which we'll get to later). The musical theme of the album is characterized by softly-layered textures of electronic hums and beats that are combined with live guitars and drums, but done with such a deft hand that the songs are seamless and imbue a warmth that leaves the listener soothed.

The comforting, dream-like quality of the music ends up being especially effective in giving weight to the lyrics, oddly enough. In the album's opener, "Fight Test," Coyne seems to be grappling with the concept of manhood, with lines like "to fight is to defend/if it's not now then tell me when would be the time that you would stand up and be a man." The cheerfully-relaxed melodies of the chorus enhance a humble reflection about finding the answers: "I don't know how a man decides what's right for his own life - it's all a mystery." In the hypnotic "Do You Realize??", Coyne combines amusingly obvious (if slightly morbid) observations ("Do you realize - that everyone you know someday will die") with endearingly positive ones ("you realize the sun doesn't go down/it's just an illusion caused by the world spinning 'round"), which are backed by happy string arrangements and vocal harmonizations. The combined effect proves to somehow be life-affirming.

What's odd about Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots is that half the songs are self-examining reflections, and the other half seem to be vague, sci-fi-themed ruminitions, as if the band were making a single-themed concept album and then changed their minds halfway through. But somehow, it all works. The centerpiece of the album is the title track "Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, pt. 1". It should be the most tongue-in-cheek song of the lot, with its children's-story lyrics like "she's gotta be strong to fight them - so she's taking lots of vitamins." But Coyne delivers the vocals with the same innocent wonder that is present throughout the album. The song ends up being perhaps the catchiest tune on the album, with it's bouncy, infectious chorus (that will remain in your head for days) and a funk-style beat that's difficult not to dance to. That a song like this can seem normal amongst the others speaks to the strength of the album as a whole--no song seems out of place, despite themes that seem to be all over the map.

Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots can indeed seem like a strange trip initially. A psychedelic vibe sometimes peaks it's way through by way of an occasional trippy lyric and odd electronic sound effect. But it's an album that gets better and better the more it is experienced, which speaks to its greatness. Once begun, it's hard not to get lost in its atmosphere. It's a strange but wonderful trip.

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