It’s great that the Flaming Lips, 30 years into their life as a band, can still surprise not only their fan base but, presumably, their record label Warner Bros., with such a strange, tripped-out excursion as the Oklahoma City band’s new album, “Flaming Lips and Heady Fwends.” In fact, on this, their 14th studio album, they go deeper and further down the experimental abyss on a full-length album than they have in a decade, and seem to have busted out a bunch of distortion pedals that they haven’t used since they were discovering LSD and making seminal (if youthfully naive), psychedelic punk masterpieces like “Hear It Is.” So kudos to Wayne Coyne and company for their spirit of creative abandon.
But said abandon on “Heady Fwends” is often of the reckless kind, the sound of a band and a bunch of heady friends indulging themselves in the studio. The aforementioned “Heady Fwends” include, among others, Bon Iver, Kesha, Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeros, Yoko Ono, Erykah Badu, Jim James of My Morning Jacket, Nick Cave and others, each of whom offers vocals on select tracks.
The Lips have long been the purveyors of beautiful chaos, the kind that harnessed Beatle-esque melodies and teamed it with distortion. For its part, “Heady Fwends” often sounds like the last minute of “Helter Skelter,” right before Ringo Starr screams, “I’ve got blisters on me fingers!”
Which isn’t a bad thing at all. This is noise rock, and the collaborators who fare best harness it to the greatest advantage. Pop star Kesha, in a weird non-sequitur collaboration with Biz Markie and the Flaming Lips, opens the record with the abrasive “2012 (You Must Be Upgraded),” and with it blows apart any question that she’s the most open-minded of the new batch of female pop vocalists. Rhode Island duo Lightning Bolt teams with the Lips for the psychedelic “I’m Working With NASA on Acid,” a title which accurately conveys the music’s essence.
There’s little beauty within this particular collection of noise; it’s often the staticky, abrasive, treble-heavy noise, the kind that actually annoys the ear drums. Which would be fine if “Heady Fwends” didn’t feel so cobbled together; it seldom gathers enough momentum, and doesn’t feel the least bit cohesive. There’s a fine line between “cobbled together” and “improvised,” and though the Lips should never be criticized for their occasional indulgences, that doesn’t mean all of them are equally worthy of attention.