Short Cuts 

The Flaming Lips' anime-inspired search for warmth and wonder.

Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots

The Flaming Lips

(Warner Bros.)

"Do you realize that happiness will make you cry?" Wayne Coyne asks on "Do You Realize??," the first single from the Flaming Lips' new album Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots. It's a typical Lips line, simple on the surface but complex, literally mixing happiness and sadness, hope and despair into one idea. This approach gave the band's previous album, the commercial and critical breakthrough The Soft Bulletin, its warmth and quirky soul, and despite its cartoonish, anime-inspired subject matter, Yoshimi is marked by these same qualities.

The title character of this concept album is "a black belt in karate working for the city." She has been picked to save the world from the Pink Robots, which can replicate human emotions to an alarming degree. During the first half of the album, she trains for the confrontation ("Fight Test" and "Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, Pt. 1") while the robots roll off the assembly line ("One More Robot/Sympathy 3000-21"), building up to the big showdown ("Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, Pt. 2").

The second half of Yoshimi examines the fight's aftermath, as the hero is plagued by doubts over the validity and usefulness of human emotions. Emotions are messy and painful ("Do you realize that everyone you know will someday die?"), but, ultimately, they're what make us human. The album ends with the somberly triumphant instrumental "Approaching Pavonis Mons By Balloon (Utopia Planitia)."

If all this sounds silly, it is: The childish subject matter underscores the enormity of the message. If it sounds like it might be commenting on politics or cloning or bad Steven Spielberg movies like A.I., it's not: Coyne's approach is resoundingly personal, never political. He is fascinated with the spectrum of human emotions, even the extremes: "What is love and what is hate and why does it matter?" he asks on "In the Morning Of the Magicians." His scope is too broad and entirely too idiosyncratic for the merely topical.

In rock, such grave whimsy demands sonic support to match. Fortunately, the music on Yoshimi is exuberant, inventive, and -- despite its studio origins -- organic. The album continues the Lips' steady progression away from the guitar-based psychedelic rock of early albums like Now Hear This and Transmissions From the Satellite Heart to a freer, looser, more evocative sound. A few songs forgo Steve Drozd's signature fuzzed-out drums for computerized beats and keyboard squiggles appropriate to the subject matter. But the music is always anchored in live instrumentation, from Michael Ivins' free-floating bass line on "In the Morning Of the Magicians" to the simple, gently strummed acoustic guitar on "Do You Realize??"

Otherworldly yet earthy, spacey yet folksy, Yoshimi invokes intimate emotions with far-out imagery. It's this sensibility that gives the album its unique spark, making these songs devastating as well as uplifting. -- Stephen Deusner

Grade: A

Arkansas Heat

The Gossip

(Kill Rock Stars)

A punk-rock three-piece who relocated from small-town Arkansas to the more congenial Olympia, Washington, the Gossip aren't prolific, following last year's rousing half-hour debut That's Not What I Heard with this six-song, 19-minute return. But that modest discography may still be enough to mark them as the most singular-sounding band to emerge from Olympia's rich rock scene since Sleater-Kinney.

Like the punk they were born from and the Delta blues they evoke, so much of the Gossip's appeal derives from the music's D.I.Y. freedom -- the sense that anyone could do this. But like so much of the great punk and Delta blues they, during their finest moments, earn comparisons with, what sets them apart from most of their colleagues is the reality that not everyone can do it this well. Lead singer Beth Ditto's righteous blues-mama howl isn't the kind of sound you'd expect to hear fronting an indie-rock or punk band: It isn't an Everygirl voice; it's a gift. And her band's musical appropriation of the blues tradition is natural and unadorned in a manner that countless hipper punk bands have never been able to touch.

The Gossip only hit that kind of peak once here, but the lead/title song is some kind of great anthem: "Arkansas Heat" opens with a big, lumbering guitar riff soon doubled by the bass, the same kind of intro trick --one that says, Something big is about to happen -- as "Smells Like Teen Spirit." Then Ditto makes her appearance, recounting the band's rather mundane origin as if it were some kind of Steinbeckian journey with "Two hours south of Memphis, y'all/From a little town in Arkansas/Where the people haven't changed at all since 1965" before making her move with "Well, you sell off everything you own/Just to make it all on your own/I ain't a child, I ain't full-grown/But I'll prove to you." The rest is all sass and relief, from the insouciant "Got my whole town sweatin' me" to the delighted "Tell the preacher just in case he asks/That we ain't never never comin' back" to a hopeful closing-credits salute to all their hometown girls "in Memphis now."

After that, the rest of the record consists of roughly recorded rave-ups, the sound of a band finding a distinct sound and playing around with it -- scruffed-up, juke-ready riffs, drum kits bashed as if by Animal from The Muppets, and Ditto's lost-in-time deep-soul vocals delivering the message, culminating in the 10-minute tent meeting "(Take Back) The Revolution." -- Chris Herrington

Grade: A-

Stab the Unstoppable Hero

Arlo

(Sub Pop)

Will power pop be the next rock bandwagon after we get the '80s out of our system? Probably not. Power pop is notoriously maligned, and it's more stubbornly resistant to change than any other rock subgenre, evolving little since Big Star, Badfinger, and the Raspberries elaborated on the teachings of the Byrds, the Beatles, and the Nazz. It also tends to be geek fodder on a par with prog rock or Monty Python (the Frank Zappa of humor). And this is what makes the genre a little puzzling. After all, the well-written hook is the world's most underrated aphrodisiac, right? The perfect pop song has a strange and disturbing power over human impulsiveness, causing all kinds of wonderful things to align and catch fire.

Unfortunately, for power-pop band Arlo, the perfect pop song seems unobtainable. They try, and they try hard. They know where their roots lie -- late-'70s L.A. power pop -- but haven't managed to locate the perfect hook. This flaw is compounded by big-and-loud alternative-rock radio production, an attempt to make the band the next Foo Fighters or Weezer if only they can catch the ears of the right million people. The dichotomy of the reedy vocals and poor man's Cheap Trick choruses sharing space with these unrealistic cover-of-Spin aspirations makes for an unfocused effort: This is one would-be power-pop gem that won't have you whistling as you walk down the street. -- Andrew Earles

Grade: C+

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