The Flaming Lips – “Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots” (2002)

June 26, 2009 at 4:20 pm (Music, Reviews & Articles, The Flaming Lips)

The Flaming Lips’ brilliant follow-up to 1999’s The Soft Bulletin, this album was every bit its equal and solidified Wayne Coyne and The Lips as perhaps the most inventive, fascinating purveyors of skewered pop perfection in the musical world. 
This review comes from July 15, 2002 — written by Will Bryant for the
Pitchfork website… 


I think it’s safe to say that the Flaming Lips’ Wayne Coyne is a genius, equal parts Thomas Edison and P.T. Barnum. Like Edison, Coyne is a relentless tinkerer, a visionary experimenteur with a sci-fi fetish and a soft spot for odd technologies. And like Barnum, Coyne is a consummate showman – the hand puppets, the boombox orchestras, the oddball short films, the radio-controlled headphones. In 1984, Coyne was just another Oklahoma dreamer with an amateurish psych-rock garage band and a duffel bag stuffed with thrift-store effects pedals; 18 years later, Coyne finds himself in the position of following up one of the most universally regarded albums since Pet Sounds.

So let’s just come right out and say it: after the one-two punch of Zaireeka and The Soft Bulletin, Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots is a bold and inventive work, brimming with ideas and sublime moments of brilliance. But it’s also unfocused and top-heavy, a concept album about robots and karate that, somewhere along the line, strays into languorous, contemplative songs about mortality and death. Nor does Yoshimi always put the Lips’ best foot forward – though Dave Fridmann’s production dazzles, the overdriven drums and orchestral swoons that characterized The Soft Bulletin are often lost in a busy mesh of programmed beats and lazy synthstrings.

The album gets off to a rollicking start with the winning “Fight Test,” a glossy rumination on the call to duty – whether that’s standing up to a playground bully or, as the Lips would have it, an army of rebellious androids bent on world domination. “If it’s not now, then tell me when would be the time that you would stand up and be a man?” Coyne sings over a thick buzz of keyboards, bass and an almost hip-hop rhythm, offsetting his resolve in the refrain: “I don’t know how a man decides what’s right for his own life/ It’s all a mystery.” It’s a stunning pop song – easily this album’s “Waitin’ for a Superman” – with an intensely memorable melody and the conflict of Coyne’s internal dialogue resonating positively on many levels.

Yoshimi takes its first left turn with “One More Robot/Sympathy 3000-21,” a slippery detour into glitch augmented with falsetto choruses, reverberating vocals and haywire surges of digital clickery. “Unit 3000-21 is warming/ Makes a humming sound when its circuits duplicate emotions,” Coyne sings over a simple bass figure and ambient tones before the song explodes in a burst of overdriven clockwork. It’s a dizzying, disorienting sound– but once the novelty wears off, you’ve gotta admit it sounds a bit like Steely Dan.

“Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots (Part 1)” rides a simple melody and ridiculously infectious butt-beat as it sets the stage for the album’s short-lived ‘concept’– some entertaining nonsense about an army of Japanese girls training to take on the salmon-hued robots at a kung-fu compound right out of Enter the Dragon. In the chorus, Coyne plays call-and-response with a malevolent synth burble that sounds like a malevolent R2-D2. Its rollercoaster companion, “Yoshimi (Part 2),” scales a slinky, ascending wall of farty synth and distant Japanese babble before the bottom falls out, rocketing into chaotic instrumental breakdowns each a shade more intense than the last. It’s the closest the Lips have come to writing straight videogame music, complete with crowd noises and bloodcurdling screams (courtesy of the Boredoms’ Yoshimi Yokota).

And this is where Yoshimi makes its first misstep, on the sleepy “In the Morning of Magicians.” Though punctuated with bursts of instrumental energy, the arrangement quickly devolves into a thick lite-FM syrup. “What is love and what is hate, and why does it matter?” Coyne wonders over a flitty symphony of Muzak strings. Again, the production is flawless – I especially dig the wavering tape-speed fluctuations on the background vocals – but the song throws the album into a downbeat, overly philosophical malaise from which it never fully recovers. What happened to Yoshimi again? Pink robots… what pink robots?

Yoshimi shines again with the superior “Ego Tripping at the Gates of Hell,” which pits more existential lyrics over a far more satisfying collage of sounds (vocal samples, snippets of mellotron, a lumbering bass). “I was waiting on a moment, but the moment never came,” croons Coyne, echoing the issues of readiness and bravery “Fight Test” raised, but also betraying Yoshimi‘s greatest weakness: the moment never comes.

The closest the Lips do come is on the divine “Are You a Hypnotist?,” if only for the brief return of some actual drums (brilliantly tracked to create some glitchy, idiosyncratic fills impossible to play in real life). Coyne indulges in wordplay such as, “I have forgiven you for tricking me again/ But I have been tricked again/ Into forgiving you,” as the song builds to a distorted swell of fuzzy static and some otherworldly choir.

“Do You Realize” buzzes and clangs with overproduction, as Coyne breezes through a list of trite observations like, “Do you realize that everyone you know someday will die?” and, “Let them know you realize that life goes fast/ It’s hard to make the good things last.” Its parallels with Mike + the Mechanics’ “The Living Years” are uncanny, and believe me, it hurts me more to say that about a Flaming Lips song than it does you to read it. The already unsubtle onslaught of church bells, woozy background harmonies, and strings ascends into supreme levels of cheese with not one, but two key changes midway through, becoming a near-parody of the genuine emotional weight that carried The Soft Bulletin. And the minor-key Beatleisms of “It’s Summertime (Throbbing Orange Pallbearers)” are wasted on more childlike philosophizing: “Look outside/ I know that you’ll recognize it’s summertime.” After the grandiose, symphonic universalisms of The Soft Bulletin, could it be this record’s deepest message is “stop and smell the roses”?

Apparently so, as the self-explanatory “All We Have Is Now” retreads these themes for a third time, albeit with an uncharacteristically fragile beauty. All of this might have some ironic poignancy if, god forbid, Coyne were to be diagnosed with some terminal illness tomorrow (and indeed, the latter half of Yoshimi was reportedly inspired by the death of a Japanese fan). But in the context of this album, Yoshimi simply runs out of emotional punch, having expended its boldest moves and most resonant sentiments in the first five songs.

Bafflingly, Yoshimi ends with “Approaching Pavonis Mons by Balloon (Utopia Planitia),” an anticlimactic instrumental punctuated with distant vocal warbling, laser-beam bursts, and sudden fanfares of trumpet. It didn’t have to be this way, judging from the wealth of stronger material widely traded online by net-savvy Lips fans. The evocative “The Switch That Turns Off the Universe” (previewed in a 1999 BBC session) would seem to be a perfect fit with Yoshimi‘s cautionary tales of techno-doom. Or better yet, the Yoshimi outtake “If I Go Mad/Funeral in My Head” (now set to appear as a single b-side), an instant Lips classic in which Coyne seemingly conjures rainstorms, orchestras, and deafening applause on command.

Despite this album’s disappointing brevity (45 minutes, padded with two instrumentals), its dense production and well-crafted melodies offer long-term replayability. Moments like the Coyne-as-robot “I’ll get you, Yoshimi” barely audible in the title track, or the interchangeable “I must have been drifting”/”I must have been tripping” background vocals in “Ego Tripping at the Gates of Hell” seem tailor-made for bull sessions around the alien-head bong. Though Yoshimi could be considered guilty of adhering too strictly to a tried-and-true formula (fast beats, slow melodies), it’s really the more disparate elements that keep this album from building emotionally into a classic. And so, like a double feature of Drunken Master and Terms of Endearment, or a surprise party where the surprise is that your best friend has cancer, ultimately Yoshimi is kind of a bummer.

Will Bryant

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“Michael Jackson: The Passing of an Icon”

June 26, 2009 at 11:48 am (Music, Reviews & Articles)

Even though I am shocked, as much as anyone, about Michael Jackson’s sudden passing yesterday (along with Farrah Fawcett), I can’t help but think that this is probably not as shocking as we would like to think. Considering the turmoil and scandal and strange behavior in Michael’s life all these years, is this really so shocking? Somehow, I think we all knew that Michael wasn’t destined to live a long life, just like we knew Elvis wouldn’t, or Marilyn Monroe. Somehow, we knew that this train, which had been heading off the tracks for over two decades now, was bound to eventually crash and end in tragedy. It seemed inevitable – it was just a matter of time.

We are in shock though, more because of what his music meant to millions of us as we were growing up – it was the soundtrack to our lives – than because of the man himself. He was such an omnipresent force on the radio and MTV during the late 1970s and 80s, that you simply could not avoid him or his music and videos. In some ways though, it seems like the man had already died many years ago. He seemed to be merely existing these past ten years or so, like he was already a walking ghost. I think the fame was something that he tired of, but I think it also must have been painfully hard for him to accept that he was no longer the most important musical force in the world. Poor sales of his last few efforts proved that his place at the top of the musical heap was over. Then came the long, slow decline, and with it, the increasingly strange and disturbing behavior.

With Michael’s lost innocence came our lost innocence. The world is a much darker, uglier place than it was when Off the Wall and Thriller ruled the airwaves. And never again will there be a superstar of Michael’s stature, whether you were a fan of his or not.

I admit I was not a huge fan of his. I found his later behavior and image to be creepy, weird and disturbing – not least because of the numerous child molestation charges that were brought against him. Also, most of his later songs left me very indifferent. But you cannot deny him his place in musical history. Like Frank Sinatra, Elvis and The Beatles before him, the world was forever altered because of his place in it, and not just in a musical sense. His fashions, his dance moves, his image, his videos – they influenced a generation, and will continue to do so for decades to come.

His early songs like “Off the Wall,” “Rock With You,” “Don’t Stop Till You Get Enough,” “Beat It’ and “Billie Jean” are the soundtrack to my pre-teen years, and I admit that those songs are timeless, effortless pop classics that I still enjoy. Just for those five songs alone, his place in history would be secure. He had so many more hits than that though – in his early years with The Jackson 5 and later on with his albums Bad and Dangerous. I think those early Jackson 5 hits, as well as the Off the Wall and Thriller albums had a certain timeless quality about them that his later albums did not possess. I believe he got too caught up with trying to duplicate Thriller and his music became too calculated and labored over because of it. He seemed to get caught in a time warp and couldn’t progress past those early efforts, just as he, himself, couldn’t seem to progress past his lost childhood. There was something tragic about this man-child, and he was too wrapped up in the fantasy world that he had created for himself to ever break free.

It’s a shame that a career that started off so brilliantly just skidded off the tracks at some point. But what is even more tragic is that a boy who appeared to be destined to a lifetime of endless greatness and happiness, and who possessed such effortless charisma, took such a sharp, tragic turn in direction, and his life went so horribly wrong. And he became such a parody and a joke over the past twenty years, that we forget just how important an artist he was at one time.

It just goes to show though that being in that rare upper echelon of stardom, where you are no longer simply famous, but superfamous, and where you can literally have anything your heart and money can buy, is ultimately not a good thing. Too many yes-men killed Elvis, and it killed Michael Jackson as well.

Still, his music will always be that soundtrack to an earlier, happier, more carefree time in our lives, and for that alone, he deserves to never be forgotten. Yesterday, the world lost a legend, and they just don’t make them like that anymore. For better and for worse, he was truly one of a kind.

Jay Mucci

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Jonathan Cott – “Bob Dylan in the Alley” (1971)

June 26, 2009 at 9:32 am (Bob Dylan, Music, Reviews & Articles)

This comes from Rolling Stone, March 4, 1971 (issue #77), about the premiere of his concert film Eat the Document, which had been made years earlier and focused on Dylan’s 1966 world tour. This film has remained obscure ever since…


Dylan Film, Opening Night: Fast on the Eye


It was an early evening rain, night comin’ in a-fallin’, and merely on the basis of short advance announcements in Rolling Stone, the Village Voice, and on Howard Smith’s FM radio show, a couple of thousand persons showed up at the Academy of Music on February 8th to catch Dylan’s one-hour color film Eat the Document, shown twice at 7:00 and 9:00 with proceeds going to a Pike County citizen’s group which has been set up to stop strip mining in the South.

Jerry Rubin and Gordon Lightfoot where there. A. J. Weberman (“name me someone that’s not a parasite and I’ll go out and say a prayer for him”), so-called Minister of Defense of the so-called Dylan Liberation Front was standing under the marquee wearing his FREE BOB DYLAN button and passing out a leaflet which concluded “The movie you are about to see is about the old Dylan – a beautiful right-on dude who sang the truth and gave a lot of his bread to SNCC, but the new Dylan, the post-accident Dylan, is a stoned Pig.”

The Academy of Music, with its cavernous dome and its karmic memories of the Chords and the Valentines, early Fifties rock and roll shows rubbed and ingrained into the seats, was the perfect setting for this revisitation of old Dylan lovers hoping to retrieve their fantasies of their hero who used to “meet on edges.” And there everyone was with that “restless hungry feeling,” waiting for some miracle, so called Dylan Liberation Front members in the front rows, confusion boats, kneeling blood hounds, mutiny from stem to bow – all of Dylan’s images coming home to roost.

The Band’s manager, John Taplin, who organized the screening, had announced we were going to see a work print. The first images of the film came on the screen, out of focus, no sound, and it was positively 14th Street. “Fix it, you bastards!” some shouted. Other friendly voices screamed: “Get the shit together”; “I see why ABC didn’t buy this piece of shit”; “Let’s see him shoot up!” Someone behind me was talking about buying the $2 pirate edition of Dylan’s “liberated” novel “Tarantula.” A revolution in the Academy of Music.

The projector focused and started again, and on came a very special film conveying the sense of a private diary, both the subject and its filmic embodiment being that of a true night journey through mad, disjointed landscapes, a magic swirling ship of jump-cuts, “ready for to fade.” Dylan said: “We cut it fast on the eye.”

The quasi-methedrine logic of Eat the Document suggests a self-consciously disintegrating structure, an anti-documentary that uses the star image in order to de-mystify and decompose it. Thus Dylan’s presence is undermined for any easy identification by means of juxtaposing images from Australia with say a scene in an English train. Needless to say the film’s structure corresponds to what Dylan must have experienced on this mixed up confusion tour.

Using footage taken mainly by Donn Pennebaker (Don’t Look Back) during Dylan’s 1966 world tour with the Band both Dylan and editor friend Howard Alk retired to Woodstock and shortly after Dylan’s motorcycle accident, using editing ideas as their map they constructed a film that suggests the works of Man Ray, Ron Rice and William Burroughs with its insistence on perceiving a multitude of concrete details and elliptical progressions. What one remembers are silhouetted figures, a beautiful, almost androgynous Dylan with cigarette and shades, police dogs brutalizing a man in a bagpipe parade, a man wearing a sandwich board reading “It is appointed unto men once to die.” Dylan reading a paper in bed, a man in a war helmet, a cemetery, dogs on leashes, girls’ faces, fans commenting on Dylan’s music outside Royal Albert Hall (“It was rubbish”; “He was great, better than Presley”) and above all the repeating images of travel – a train steaming and whistling across country, scores of cars with their one too many windows which one is always looking through. And in on scene, which epitomizes the sense the film gives of one’s watching postcards of the hanging, the camera pans over people’s hands as they drunkenly pass plates across a Last Supper length table, and suddenly at the table’s corner is Dylan in shades, shrouded in a private world, looking abstractedly and wanly to the, side.

The soundtrack presents dream-like fragments of speech: “Have you ever heard of me?…I heard you booing…I can ‘t believe that everyone makes it so difficult…I’m sorry for everything I’ve done.” “Are you ever yourself at any time?” someone questions him, and Dylan shrugs “Why are you here?” another reporter asks to which Dylan says: “I take orders from someone on the telephone, but I never see him. He calls up and just tells me where to go.” And we’re back on the Nova Express.

The film’s fantastic music is cut off sometimes returning in similar elliptical fashion. The audience at the Academy of Music booed when those amazing Liverpool versions featuring Dylan and the Band playing “Like a Rolling Stone,” “One Too Many Mornings” and “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” were broken off abruptly. Other performances are briefly shown as well: “Tell Me Mama” and “Mr Jones” with the Band at Albert Hall, three beautiful acoustic numbers by Dylan accompanied by Robbie Robertson, Johnny Cash and Dylan singing “I Still Miss Someone.” But most of the people at the Academy of Music wanted to see a 1966 Dylan concert and not, what is equally powerful, Dylan’s particular filmic perceptions.

Most of these numbers, as well as the short fragments showing John Lennon and Dylan zonked out in the back of a car are small scenes taken from longer rushes that Donn Pennebaker has been working on in “documentary” style, in a wonderful, still unfinished and unreleased film. Both Dylan’s and Pennebaker’s films go well together.

“I shot most of the film,” Pennebaker says, “but it was pretty much Dylan directing what went on. And editing is all Dylan’s. Dylan wanted Eat the Document to show what TV never does, to snap people’s head a bit. It’s Dylan’s logic. And it’s a little like a mystery tour, really an extraordinary event. To worry about whether it’s good or bad is ridiculous. I find the film arresting, and I’m knocked out that he did it. Unlike my film which I’m making in order to see a kind of record preserved, Dylan’s film is complete. If someone had bought “Tarantula” and made a film of it that would be one thing. But in Eat the Document, Dylan is making you see things with his own funky kind of sense.”

At the beginning of the showing at the Academy of Music, Taplin announced that the film was “a little too freaky for ABC at that time, and they rejected it.”

“That’s a lie,” said Hubbell Robinson, who was executive producer for ABC’s Stage 67, the 90-minute program to which Eat the Document was originally contracted. “We didn’t know what we had,” Robinson recalled, “because when we saw the film in the fall of ’66 it wasn’t yet edited. By that time we had to make other programming commitments to producers for the spring of ’67 and Dylan didn’t know what the film would be and when it would be finished. But we were definitely interested in the film.”

There’s a possibility that Eat the Document will be distributed in the future. When it is released all the Mr. Joneses, whether they’re 14 or 64, will be wondering why Dylan didn’t just make a normal TV “music” film which anyone else could have made, when in fact Eat the Document is a near visual equivalent of some of the songs Dylan was singing on Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde


Jonathan Cott

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Jack Kerouac – “On the Road” (1957)

June 26, 2009 at 1:13 am (Jack Kerouac, Kenneth Rexroth, Poetry & Literature, Reviews & Articles, The Beats)

This review of Kerouac’s famous novel, by poet & Beat mentor Kenneth Rexroth, comes from the Sept. 1, 1957 issue of the San Francisco Chronicle


Whatever else it is, and whether good or bad, this is pretty sure to be the most “remarkable” novel of 1957. It is about something everybody talks about and nobody does anything about — the delinquent younger generation.

It is by a new author, the best prose representative of the San Francisco Renaissance which has created so much hullabaloo lately. Kerouac has written one other novel, The Town and the City, but, although it got considerable praise, it seems never to have reached many readers. I don’t think this will happen this time. On the Road has the kind of drive that blasts through to a large public. Finally, and this is what makes the novel really important, what gives it that drive is a genuine, new, engaging and exciting prose style. The subject may be catchy, the publication may be timely, but what keeps the book going is the power and beauty of the writing.

First off, it should be realized that Kerouac is not writing about the present-day adolescent. The date is about 1947. There is nothing “cool” about these young men and girls. This is the heyday of bop — the Frantic Generation of the hysterical backwash of the most horrifying ten years in human history. He is not writing about criminals, but “delinquents.” The highest compliment one crook can pay another is to say that he is “smart.” If you are smart you keep your nose clean and don’t volunteer. You believe that only customers gamble. These kids are “hep,” a vastly different thing. They steal cars. But they drive them 90 miles an hour and wreck them in front of policemen. Crooks ride airplanes; if necessary, they ride the blinds — at least when young and foolish.

These innocents dash madly back and forth across the country, but they aren’t even very good at hitchhiking. Any self-respecting pickpocket has been further around the pot looking for the handle than they have been from home. They are hep — jazz excites them — but the lucid, orderly lyricism of Lester Young sounds “wild, crazy, frantic, man!” and in a neighborhood Negro club, full of ship scalers and lady welders relaxing on Saturday night, they behave as if they were witnessing a jungle orgy. On the other hand, they are not in revolt against the society which has produced them. Their talk is not of either the yogi or the commissar, but of corny entertainers, ham TV programs and the advertised virtues of the latest cars. Their values are those of the most conformist members of the middle class they despise, but enormously hypertrophied. They are demoralized and unsuccessful little Babbitts. This novel should demonstrate once and for all that the hipster is the furious square.

Does Kerouac know this, or does he reveal it unwittingly? He knows it as an artist, however he may be deluded, as a man, by his material. Flaubert thought Emma Bovary was a conventional romantic heroine; his own irony escaped him completely, except in the art of creation. On the Road is the study of the rapid falling apart of a sort of Golem. The “hero,” Dean Moriarty, is an android, a human-seeming mechanism without interior, which has broken some essential spring and gone wild. At first he appears to be a kind of superman, beyond good and evil, and also born many years after the comparatively naïve Sanine first leered at his sister. But time tells, and not very much time. These characters have the time sense of mayflies and little children. They are always talking about “the old days,” by which they mean six months ago. A year is enough. Moriarty begins to come to pieces literally, he loses part of his thumb, his legs don’t work like they used to, his agility is gone, he can no longer dodge the consequences of his acts. But he still goes roaring on, like a bulldozer out of control and fueled with alcohol.

It’s pretty frightening. Is it true? Of course there have always been people like this, but nobody ever took them seriously. For Kerouac his Golem is a symbol, the vehicle of a general indictment — “Look, this is what you are doing to us, to me and my friends, to your children.” The sins of the fathers — this is the Oedipus Complex as Public Prosecutor.

This is a book you should read. You are humane. You read good novels. This is the price in dehumanization society pays for your humanity. Kenneth Patchen has told people this in many books for many years, Henry Miller, too, Céline and Allen Ginsberg, whom the San Francisco police don’t like. Hosea said it long ago, and all the other prophets in the Bible. Things weren’t so bad then. They’ve got a lot worse. A lot worse. Still nobody pays any attention.

Kenneth Rexroth

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