The Flaming Lips – Zaireeka: Round 71, Nick’s choice

Zaireeka_coverI didn’t have anything specifically in mind when I announced this theme, just a vague thought that it would be interesting to revisit some of the things we’ve experienced together over the last three and a half years and see what we thought. My initial instinct was to assemble a list of all the albums I’ve bought because Tom, Rob, or Graham have played them at me, and play one of them – I made a list and there were several (certainly more than Rob!), but none of them screamed “play me! play me!”; they were nice-to-haves rather than game-changers. I suspect, in my mid-30s, with a couple of thousand albums on my shelves, that coming across genuine game-changers is something I’m pretty much past.

But then Rob emailed around the list of everything we’d ever played to each other, and one particular album jumped out at me instantly. Tom said as much the next time I saw him; he thought I’d chosen this theme as an excuse to play it again, which would have been entirely justified, it just wasn’t the case.

Rob initially played Zaireeka to us at Tom’s house back in round five, blindsiding me as I’d mentioned it to him in the car journey there (and failed to notice the three stereos in the back seat that he was bringing to facilitate the experience). Amazingly that makes it one of the first records we played together, but it feels like a very recently memory. This is probably because the experience of listening to Zaireeka is so strange, so vivid, so phantasmagorical, that it sticks in the memory.

The drum experiments, the ululating vocals, the dogs barking, the crazy narratives about pilots and pets and spies and psychedelic commutes, and, of course, the whole, exacting, interactive method of consumption: I think I’m OK in saying that Zaireeka is the most bona fide experimental, avant-garde, out there record I’ve ever had the pleasure of listening to. It is bizarre and wonderful, and I was delighted that I’d inadvertently given us the chance to revisit it again.

Tom experienced Zaireeka again: Expectations are a funny thing. I remember Zaireeka having such a profound effect on me the one and only time I had heard it before that, to some extent, I couldn’t wait to hear it again. I recall it totally eclipsing the efforts of Kurt Vile and Bill Callahan (our other offerings on that evening), feeling that nothing would ever be the same again as Rob unplugged the multitudinous stereos required to listen to the thing.

Of course, over time I have re-calibrated and no longer hear the apparent post-Zaireeka thinness of the sound that a conventional stereo system offers. So I was looking forwards to hearing Zaireeka (it was obvious from some way off that this would be Nick’s record for the evening)  but a little worried that it would be back to square one. However, for me, the effect of Zaireeka second time around was greatly reduced, due mainly, I suppose, to the fact that I knew what was coming. So I listened to the songs this time around, as opposed to the sounds. And, whereas last time around I didn’t really even notice them, this time I was reminded just how little Wayne Coyne’s songwriting does for me. I have six Flaming Lips albums (but have only bought one of them) and, of the six, the only one that has ever clicked at all was In A Priest Driven Ambulance…which is a long way away from their late 90s output in terms of aesthetic. So… Zaireeka is still an amazing thing to experience but, as an album of songs, falls some way short of the brilliance of the concept.

Rob listened: It’s still like nothing else. Like Tom, I also found myself listening past the disorienting sound space and the sheer technical achievement and starting to get to the songs. Unlike Tom, I found them more beguiling and pleasurable this time around, particularly ‘Thirty-Five Thousand Feet of Despair’. Nothing can replicate that first experience, but for me, this added a little more, rather than took away. I’d be happy to have it as an annual ritual.

Bill Callahan – Apocalypse! – Round 5: Nick’s choice

I bought this especially for DRC while I was in London the day before the meeting at which it was to be played. Finding a record shop in Covent Garden proved more problematic than it used to, as they’ve seemingly all been replaced with Fred Perry vendors. I was wearing a Fred Perry at the time and felt this was a bitter irony directed personally at me. Apocalypse! was still shrink-wrapped when I arrived at Tom’s house, as per instructions to bring something unplayed. I’d not heard a note, though I had read a couple of things which pointed out longer songs and looser structures than Callahan had used before.

I only started listening to Callahan once he started using his own name; I’ve heard, to my knowledge, no Smog records at all. I quite like Woke On A Whaleheart, but I adored Sometimes I Wish We Were An Eagle, so I was looking forward to Apocalypse.

Tom has asked that we only write these pieces after six listens; I’m on two plays (DRC and one other), but frankly if I wait for six it’ll never get done, and anyway, Zaireeka really strafed everything else played or discussed last Thursday into tiny little bits. And what’s DRC without some rule-breaking?

So, Apocalypse! is looser, and the songs are longer, Callahan’s voice is still deep and rich and dry and wry and, to my ears and brain, more than a little sardonic. I had an interesting twitter chat the other day with someone from The Quietus and someone from NME about whether the song America (and specifically its lyrics) is good or bad, or funny, or ironic, or heartfelt. We concluded that it is good, and funny, and ironic, and heartfelt, all at the same time.

I am struck for some reason, and I’m not sure why, having played them both back-to-back at the weekend, that Apocalypse! is “about” guitar, both texture and melody, in the same way that …Eagle is “about” drums, both dynamics and rhythms. I’ve enjoyed it thoroughly both times I’ve played it, and I look forward to playing it more – it feels very much like a grower, although the textures, instrumental variations, and words are appreciable from the off. But I need to write this now, because it’s hanging over me like a piece of homework and I need to blitz it out so I can get onto my next thing I want to write.

Sorry Tom!

Tom Listened: This was brilliant and I am going to buy it. On vinyl. So there.

More later…..

(Footnote: Both the Kurt Vile album and this had at least one song that had a ‘Van Morrison when he was good’ vibe going on. Strange as he has drifted out of fashion in recent times – when I started getting interested in alternative music, back in the late eighties, most issues of Melody Maker would mention Astral Weeks at some point or other. Thought it was worth mentioning – possibly another DRC weird coincidence?).