Zaireeka seemed like a stoned party joke taken too far when the four CDs under its title simultaneously appeared in 1997. The Flaming Lips were already well known for psychotropic humor and subverting marketplace expectations, evoked by release titles such as Providing Needles For Your Balloons and Finally The Punk Rockers Are Taking Acid. Longtime leaders Wayne Coyne and Steven Drozd may not have been utterly tripped-out boundary breakers like their comrades the Butthole Surfers, but their fusion of 70s hard rock experimentation with punk art-trash aesthetics would end up becoming more ambitious, at least in structure, when the “fearless freaks” would put out a singular album-statement in four separate discs. That all needed to be played at the same time, in the same room, on four separate stereos, to be heard as one work.
Mark Richardson, managing editor of Pitchfork, has done with his choice for a 33 1/3 what the better ones try to do: Cover every angle of an unusual record, a record with a story. But I have never heard Zaireeka suggested as a good idea for a 33 1/3, probably because its “user-unfriendliness” has put most people off from actually investigating it. Parties have been held at clubs and in private homes where the CDs are inserted into four surrounding systems, coordinated properly for as intentional-sounding as the combination should be (remembering that all CD players play at a slightly different speed, too, even if you push the ‘play’ button right on the money with the other three people manning the other equipment). Suggestions for 33 1/3 books are often more about the emotional investments we put into certain records in our collections, how they mattered to us in a single point in time and how that may have resonated throughout our lives. Some of the books are even so subjective that they are fictional responses to the moods of landmark releases, such as the Rid Of Me volume. Richardson himself admits he hasn’t listened to Zaireeka a whole lot, though he’s gone out of his way to hear fan mixes made of all four CDs as a combined version; which actually interferes with the original mix, due to unique separations between the instruments on all the songs.
So is this just another way to screw with people’s expectations of what an album, or a book written about an album, should be? No, there are many levels to both stories. There is the sociology of music listeners challenged by having to get together and really work at listening to an album; Richardson succinctly reminds us about the evolution of the Walkman to the iPod, and how music consumption has gotten more individualistic and easy. Zaireeka is obviously a statement about that; you must be in community to listen to it, and it’s pretty freaking hard to put it together to begin enjoying it.
This 33 1/3 is well worth reading, even if you will never hear Zaireeka (I haven’t). This is because Richardson tells the Flaming Lips story based on great new interviews with Coyne and others (which isn’t always the case with this series), though also tapping into Jim DeRogatis’ excellent biography of the band. There are redundancies (the Lips’ origin story is told a couple of times) and for some curious reason more typos than you usually see in a P4k review, but Richardson uses both scholarly pop and semi-popular music knowledge and a fan’s passion to relate how a hedonistic, working class band with big ideas could have a hit song like “She Don’t Use Jelly” and also create the most controversial format for a listening experience with rock music, ever.