Friday, 7 May 2010

THE FLAMING LIPS w/STARDEATH AND WHITE DWARFS - The Dark Side of The Moon


Pink Floyd’s 1973 album ‘Dark Side of the Moon’ requires no introduction.  It’s one of the world’s best selling albums and a genuine rock classic.  In 2009, indie/psych-pop darlings The Flaming Lips teamed up with Stardeath And White Dwarfs (a band featuring the nephew of The Lips’ frontman Wayne Coyne) to pay tribute to ‘DSOTM’ with a re-imagining of the almost omnipresent album.   The album features three songs performed by The Flaming Lips, two performed by Stardeath And White Dwarfs and four performed by both bands together.  Initially I was sceptical; I love Pink Floyd and ‘Dark Side’ (although I will tell you I still think ‘Wish You Were Here’ and ‘Animals’ are superior) and wasn’t really keen on the idea of someone else having a bash at paying “tribute” to a classic.  However, as a fan of The Flaming Lips, I realised I couldn’t just ignore it – curiosity would certainly get the better of me.

If the idea of a couple of whacked-out Syd Barrett obsessed bands tackling this album with an equal measure of spacey oddness and distorted ugliness isn’t enough to pique your interest, then you should also take note that all the famous spoken passages found within the grooves of ‘DSOTM’ are reproduced verbatim here and read by Henry Rollins.  ROLLINS! 

Floyd songs + Flaming Lips + Rollins was enough to make me sit up and take notice (unlike the live version by Dream Theater which has also done the rounds).  You could say that this kind of deconstruction of a classic is disrespectful, but essentially it’s an interesting listen.  After all, it had plenty of scope for being awful and, as it is, it only really loses its way for a couple of tracks in the middle – and surprisingly, those are two of the three numbers performed by The Flaming Lips alone.

After the all too familiar heartbeat pulse sends us on our journey, things are thrown into near chaos.  Instead of atmospheric guitars and smooth harmony vocals, the version of ‘Breathe’ here is distorted and spiky.  A bass riff leads the piece; a riff which sounds like it was inspired by part of ‘Echoes’ (from Floyd’s 1971 ‘Meddle’ LP).  This becomes a little more obvious once aggressive guitar work appears – again heavily influenced by the same section of ‘Echoes’.  The vocal melodies are similar to the original version of ‘Breathe’ in places, but the delivery is weary and slightly ugly – in keeping with the new musical arrangement.  I’m not sure how they got this to work, but somehow it does.  At this point, however, it’s easy to imagine that most of the Floyd fans who’ve actually bothered to listen to this have likely turned it off.  Fact is, this release is far more for Flaming Lips fans, but that’s how it should be.   Pink Floyd’s original version of ‘On The Run’ stands as one of the great early pieces of electronica and was so ahead of its time.  Here, the musicians involved have deconstructed it and given it an almost disco rhythm (I wonder if this was a backhanded compliment to Scissor Sisters and their disco reworking of ‘Comfortably Numb’?).  Whatever, it’s great – even though it’s ‘On The Run’ in name only.

In another piece of odd futurism, the medley of chiming clocks and alarm bells which open Floyd’s version of ‘Time’ have been replaced with even more extreme sounding alarms and a loop of a man coughing.   When the opening riff comes in, there’s something about it which is both discordant and sinister.  In contrast, the vocal sections are treated lightness and feature some rather pleasing semi-acoustic guitars and slightly reverbed drums.  This is the first of two numbers performed by Stardeath without any Flaming Lips input, but all the same, it’s not hard to spot the huge influence Wayne Coyne and co have had over them during making of this album. After the distorted riff of ‘Breathe’ makes its reprise, the members of Stardeath take a back seat and the Flaming Lips perform as a solo band for the next three numbers.

 Although during the later Floyd live shows Sam Brown and Durga McBroom do a fantastic job with ‘The Great Gig In The Sky’, it’s Clare Torry’s original performance which remains the definitive one and the version here does nothing to change that.  The female wail is handled by Peaches and with the amount of distortion and studio trickery used, the performance is so masked the voice could belong to anyone.  Disappointing to say the least – and this marks the first of this album’s two drastic misfires.  Similarly, ‘Money’ goes for broke in the ugly vocal department; all vocals are heavily treated and run through keyboards and other stuff to make them sound like Sparky’s Magic Piano.  If you also consider that ‘Money’s classic riff has been slowed down just enough to make it an uninspiring plod, this one gets the firm thumbs down. Henry Rollins making a cameo at the end makes it a little better, but generally it’s bad.

‘Us and Them’ represents the moment this version of ‘Dark Side’ most closely represents the original album – and even then, there are so many differences.  The main part of the song is driven by a keyboard drone, creating a blanket of atmosphere.  Wayne Coyne’s nasal vocal isn’t a match for Rick Wright’s georgous original performance; of course, it still maintains its own charm.  It almost feels like an unreleased Lips performance, one which could’ve been slotted among the looser aspects of their ‘Clouds Taste Metallic’ album from ’96.  Rollins makes a timely appearance to deliver the ‘Short, sharp shock’ speech (rather more aggressively than the man on the original release naturally) and that in turn brings us to the track’s key difference: there are no saxophones; all smooth sax breaks are represented by a slightly distorted jazz guitar.  While the fairly sparse arrangement works fine enough, it might have been nice for the Lips to have created something multi-layered here (especially when you know they’re capable of it). 

As the end notes of ‘Us and Them’ fade into the instrumental of ‘Any Colour You Like’, we are treated to what could be this release’s greatest moment.  The funky flow of the original Floyd instrumental is still there, but there’s a new ingredient – new for this track, perhaps, but yet it feels like an old friend.  A distorted bass riff cuts through the rhythm and all becomes clear: the bass part here, once again, bears an uncanny resemblance to Roger Waters’s bass part during the mid section of the previously mentioned ‘Echoes’.  It’s a nice touch and surprisingly one which here feels very natural.  The fuzz bass works well with the sharp guitar work and the whole thing is driven by a superb drum rhythm.

Performed solely by Stardeath And White Dwarfs, ‘Brain Damage’ seems a little empty in comparison to the jam feeling of ‘Any Colour’, although the vocal here is respectful to Roger’s original performance and Stardeath frontman Dennis Coyne has a far less quirky voice than his Uncle Wayne.  Closing proceedings, the version of ‘Eclipse’ captures the grandiosity of the original album’s closing statement but adds many layers of fuzz guitar.  It’s surprising how much of this really sounds like a (fairly noisy) Flaming Lips vehicle once they’ve got their hands on it. 

This isn’t the first time an attempt has been made to recreate ‘DSOTM’, of course.  Aside from the aforementioned Dream Theater live version issued via their fan club, in 2003 The Easy Star All-Stars released ‘Dub Side of The Moon’, a reggae re-interptation and in the 1990’s the Magna Carta record label issued ‘The Moon Revisited’, a collection of progressive rock bands (including Shadow Gallery and Fates Warning among others) peddling out the album’s songs in an enjoyable but workmanlike fashion.  The Flaming Lips et al could take the crown here for the best ‘Dark Side’ tribute so far.  The bones of the songs are indeed there, yet they’ve been brazen enough to cast aside any pomposity associated with the original album and make it their own.

Naturally, this release has been frowned upon by some.  Most Floyd fans really don’t have a sense of fun, do they?  Although, I have no idea how I’d feel about this if I weren’t a Flaming Lips fan as well as a Pink Floyd devotee...


May 2010

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