Updated: May 17, 2013 6:07AM
Throughout a roller-coaster career, from the skronky early days through the compositional peak of “The Soft Bulletin,” the Flaming Lips have possessed at least an underlying jovial air. Lead singer Wayne Coyne’s scraggly smile has rarely been a cynical smirk. The wild and inventive music, even when going on lyrically about the inevitability of death or describing a wicked spider bite, always has unearthed the hope and celebration lurking within. But when I caught up with Coyne last month at South by Southwest, he was serious, a bit more the intense mad professor than usual. He didn’t smile as he said, “The new record is probably going to freak some people out. It is, on purpose, not a hopeful record.”
“The Terror,” indeed. The Oklahoma City band’s 13th album is a spookhaus of eerie soundscapes and synthesized atmospherics. The nine tracks can hardly be called songs — they seep into register, they thrum with nervous rhythms, they swirl with noise and fear. “Look…the Sun Is Rising” and “Be Free, a Way” open the album with hopeful titles and hushed, awed chanting, music that never quite gels into melody floating skyward on tissue-soft textures. But from there “The Terror” sinks into a frightening, paralyzing K-hole. The stiff rigor musicus allows little light through the tracks’ cracks all the way to the finale, which features this dreary refrain: “Always there / in our hearts / there is evil that wants out / Always there / in our hearts / there are sorrows and sadness.”
At SXSW, Coyne was in poor voice; the band’s concert run through their album “Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots” was awkward and run through by Coyne’s unusually warbling hiccups. On “The Terror,” his voice is barely there — a faint, frightened falsetto throughout, never up front, until during “Turning Violent” his off-key whines crescendo to a repeating refrain that, like a horror film, will have your head spinning as you shout, “Mother, make it stop!”
“The Terror” at least comes on with intent to express something deep and real — and at least it’s a sign that the stale confetti and hamster ball might finally retire from the live show — it just lacks the wherewithal to see that exploration through. Interesting ideas merely drone instead of developing, and much of the experimentation simply doesn’t bear out. It’s an album that may reward close repeats and would benefit from the kind of communal listening experience initiated by the band’s 1997 “Zaireeka” project — which I would encourage because listening to this album alone, in even the sunniest of rooms, is a recipe for deep despair.
Various artists, “Way to Blue: The Songs of Nick Drake” (StorySound-Carthage) ★★
The most significant musical achievement of the 1960s was the overall transformation of singers from showmen to artists. The extra role demanded hyphenation — singer-songwriter — and the creation of music and its link to one’s identity became as important (often more so) as its performance. Then, as that decade waned, a shy young Briton who hated performing retreated toward the far side of this new equation and produced some of the world’s first and best bedroom-indie records. Nick Drake managed to have an enormous impact as an artist without trotting the boards like a modern-day vaudevillian.
Of course, he didn’t get much chance. Drake died of an apparent overdose in 1974 at age 26, but the three albums he left behind became treasured prizes handed off among moody fans and songwriters. In 1999, the title track to “Pink Moon” was used in a Volkswagen commercial, and a new generation rushed online to find out who recorded that delicate masterpiece. This new tribute effort — a series of concerts recorded in Europe and Australia, organized by Drake’s original producer, Joe Boyd — ably showcases that impact, even if it doesn’t go nearly far enough.
These occasional gatherings of singer-songwriters from the same basic cult status as Drake himself comprise “Way to Blue: The Songs of Nick Drake” and evoke less a sense of discovery than a deep, sometimes funereal reverence. Few of these recordings approach the chilling magic of the originals — Luluc, Vashti Bunyan, Lisa Hannigan and others are so breathy and awed that their steadfast interpretations never lift from the hymnal pages — but a few rise above the knowing NPR Music air and ionize things a bit. Robyn Hitchcock, a keen medium for Drake’s drone, balances the soft tones of “Parasite” with his more reedy voice, plus the lovely addition of some otherworldly oboe. Scritti Politti’s Green Gartside (!) showcases his usual strength in restraint (“Fruit Tree”), an excellent quality to bring to this particular table, and Shane Nicholson adds pendulous swing to the jazzy “Poor Boy.” The best breakthrough is too good for words — a mulled jazz instrumental led by pianist Zoe Rahman and bassist Danny Thompson (who actually played with Drake). That everyone’s good intentions never quite transcend only underscores Drake’s legacy.
Bonus: For a real treat, look to “Molly Drake” (★★★) the self-titled collection of songs by Nick’s mum. Recorded in the 1950s in the family living room and recently restored by Nick’s engineer, John Wood, these piano ballads are clearly the fountainhead of Nick’s masterful balance of pastoral joy with overcast melancholy. “Molly Drake” will satisfy a spirit of discovery far more than “Way to Blue,” and it’s a charmer all by itself. Available for download at mollydrake.bandcamp.com.