The Flaming Lips and Heady Fwends, a compilation of musical collaborations the Lips recorded over the past year, was initially a Record Store Day special, and one that sold out quickly. It's a curious move by Warner Bros. to release such a fan-only release more widely, and perhaps it's only a chance for the label to make a few more bucks. Or maybe it's a chance for the fans who may have missed out the first time to snag their very own copy without the worry and guilt of illegal downloading (we still feel those emotions around that, right?).
Either way, Heady Fwends is a plenty worthwhile listen, both a fitting successor to the band's last true album, 2009's Embryonic, and a nice hold-over until their next, apparently huge record. Like Embryonic, this album is all about vast, buzzing soundscapes. The songs here and are wide open and plush as they are skittered with paranoia. What keeps the 70 or so minutes of music fresh is how the visiting artists help shape the mood of specific songs. Bon Iver feels a perfect fit to the swirling, electro-pastroral space of "Ashes in the Air," and the song stands as a strong start and an early tone-setter for the rest of the record. "Helping the Retarded to Find God," is (title aside) a charming turn with Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros, and another chance for Wayne Coyne and the Lips to twist sweet acoustic sounds into something more oddly textured and pock marked with holes of negative space.
The moods jump all over, from the playful skronk of "2012," featuring Ke$ha and Biz Markie, to the excellent 10-minute sci-fi melancholia of "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face." Erykah Badu stands in for Roberta Flack perfectly here, and her soulful singing fits well into the grind and groan of the Lips ambient backing noise (though apparently there's some problem with the video). "I'm Working at NASA on Acid," the Lips collaboration with Lightning Bolt, may comprise all the tones and textures here most succinctly. The album shifts from jangling, Bowie-esque acoustic pop to blistering speed-rock and back again in its 8-minute run time.
It may all cohere together, but it doesn't all work. The Nick Cave-led "You, Man? Human???" should work on paper, but to hear Cave thunder through all that gauzy fuzz -- he's buried in the mix, for some reason -- makes it feel like an incomplete Grinderman outtake. "Is David Bowie Dying?" was one of the more publicized collaborations (with Neon Indian), but it feels too shapeless at the edges, perhaps to mask a middle that feels like the Lips in Soft Bulletin cruise control.
The other thing that gets oversold here is the idea that these collaborations are all experimental. They mesh musical ideas, sure, but none of this feels like it pushes further than any other Flaming Lips record (or any record by these collaborators, for that matter). In fact, in the end, its still the Lips' aesthetic all over this, which speaks to how overpowering Wayne Coyne's musical vision must be. Not only that, but even if the band is experimenting, it was for a series of releases, culminating in Heady Fwends, meant for the die-hards, so it's not like this is experimentation with a whole lot at stake. That said, Heady Fwends is still surprisingly cohesive, and has more than it's share of solid tunes (with Badu's turn being the true highlight of the record), which is more than most one-off releases like this can claim.