Review: The Flaming Lips and Heady Fwends

A bizarre and uneven effort - with moments of promise - packed with high-profile guests.

Iann Robinsonby Iann Robinson


The Flaming Lips

The Flaming Lips & Heady Fwends

Warner Bros, Lovely Sorts Of Death, Bella Union

Wayne Coyne and his Flaming Lips crew have released a record that has me scratching my head. I can’t tell if The Flaming Lips And Heady Fwends is the work of a certified genius, a group that doesn’t care anymore or an experiment that Coyne used to see if he can get away with releasing whatever he wants. The Flaming Lips are one of those bands, like Radiohead or Death Cab For Cutie, a band who inspires a rabid and defensive following whether it’s deserved or not.

The Flaming Lips And Heady Fwends was released on Record Store Day and consists of the Lips collaborating with a nutty ensemble of performers. These collaborations have resulted in a record that lacks cohesion, vision and at times is nearly unlistenable. Not because the songs are so awful, but literally because the distortion or feedback becomes painful. Having listened to Heady Fwends several times, I’m still unsure if this an authentic nutjob spewing pretentious semen over his bastard creations or if Coyne has written one big inside joke he’s hoping the fans will catch onto.

“2012” opens the record with Flaming Lips, Biz Markie and Ke$ha. The involvement between a pop princess and a musician like Wayne Coyne might seem too hipster cute for words, but the song is too strange not to be genuine. It’s a loud and noisy robot rock tune with Ke$ha spouting futuristic lyrics while a voice that comes off like a Dalek repetitively screeches, “You must be upgraded”. Suddenly the song erupts into a future rock version of “Born To Hand Jive” from the movie Grease. Blips, scratches and keyboards round out the music and I’ll be damned if I heard Biz Markie in there at all.

“Ashes In The Air” sounds like avante garde musician Laurie Anderson writing the soundtrack music to a seventies B Sci-Fi movie. Think back to those old sci-fi movies and try to focus on the love scene. The one where the weird girl robot and the young man began to kiss each other while epic keyboards played the audio equivalent of space love. Think of those sounds and you’ll hear what “Ashes In The Air” is doing. Folk project Bon Ivers add their harmonies to the track, giving it an ethereal and otherworldly dimension.

Perhaps the most quizzical song on the entire album is “Helping The Retarted To Know God”. Yep, the name of the song is in poor taste but the music is remarkably beautiful. Coyne aligns himself with Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeroes so the vocals are so lush it’s almost sickening. A light acoustic strum guides the more electronic elements. Outrage at the title gives way to the nuances of the music. Despite yourself, “Helping The Retarted Know God” makes you see a mentally challenged person reaching towards God and being aided in his/her attempt. It’s that same supernatural pop vibe that made Brian Wilson’s Smile so effective.

“Supermoon Made Me Want To Pee”, a collaboration with Prefuse 73 is unlistenable garbage, I get that Coyne was trying to shake things up but the track utterly fails, even on the noise and experimental side. “That Ain’t My Trip” is a fuzzed out rocker with Jim James that is part Stooges and part Kyuss if Throbbing Gristle covered both bands. The song grooves but does it through a thick wall of heavy distortion. 

It’s around this track that Heady Fwends begins losing ground. Coyne can’t seem to decide if this is a space opera or a bunch of noise. Perhaps he never intended to make that decision and just shoved these songs together for good sport. Whatever the reason, right after “That Ain’t My Trip”, the record falls apart. Too much bombastic noise, too much rapid fire feedback and too much uncontrolled chaos. It all sounds desperately random; as if Coyne wanted to show everybody he could make an uncomfortable record.  

The big question I had was how Coldplay songster Chris Martin would affect Heady Fwends. Martin is usually good for vocals that drip with sweetness and I was hoping his contribution might help the record get back to its better first half. Sadly my copy did not have the Chris Martin jam; instead it ends with the mediocre “Tasered And Maced”. 

It’s clear that Wayne Coyne made this record for himself and there’s something to be said for that. I also think he was unafraid to alienate even the most hardcore Flaming Lips fan, something I also respect. The Flaming Lips & Heady Fwends is an album I respect and I’d gladly shake Coyne’s hand for making it. That being said, if I never heard the album again I would be just fine.