There's a lot to be said for bands that can strip music down to its rawest essentials, bypassing technique for simple, direct melody and/or power. But there's even more to be said for those who add on and do more, painstakingly applying layer upon layer in a way that makes the end result sound both accessible and multidimensional. The recent works of Radiohead and various members of the Elephant 6 collective have generally proven that more can be better, but few have taken meticulousness to as beautiful and consistently compelling an extreme as Oklahoma's venerable Flaming Lips. The group spent well over a decade making weird, psychedelic, obtuse, inconsistent music before momentarily breaking big with the 1994 hit "She Don't Use Jelly," but since then, the bar has been raised with every release, from the excellent Clouds Taste Metallic to the mind-blowing Zaireeka (which, to be heard as intended, requires the listener to play its four discs simultaneously), to the new, career-defining The Soft Bulletin. An impossibly multi-tracked masterwork of excess, abrasion, and indefinable beauty, the album finds The Flaming Lips creating dreamlike pastiches out of countless carefully assembled sounds and instruments, layered vocals, and an infinite number of ideas. Lyrically, it's pure prog, with songs about scientists, physics, bugs, and Superman, all filtered through frontman Wayne Coyne's brittle, oddly warm voice. But it's more than that. In recent years, the band has experimented with combining disparate sounds from every angle—like the Parking Lot Experiment, in which different, carefully timed tapes were played simultaneously from dozens of car stereos—but with The Soft Bulletin, it accomplishes that feat in a single beautiful hour, on a single beautiful disc. Outstanding.
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