Another piece from 2002. This was published on Pitchfork, but through several migrations/CMS changes, etc., it’s no longer in the archive and hasn’t been for some time. Which is just as well—it’s not very good. But I’m posting it because it was the germ of the idea for my Zaireeka book, and a few people have found it over the years. It’s even mentioned on Wikipedia.
A few weeks ago Dominique Leone took Ryan Schreiber to task for Ryan’s Pet Sounds review. He felt that the low rating of this classic was a travesty, so he wrote an entertaining essay dissecting Ryan’s reasoning and picking apart the review to reveal its flaws. Now, being a Pet Sounds fan but not a Pet Sounds fanatic, I always liked Ryan’s review. I thought it took some stones to go against the almost fascistic consensus on that record, and some of his points I agreed with. I liked Dominique’s response, too, and when I read it, the first thing that popped into my head was Zaireeka.
Pitchfork was in an embryonic form back in early 1998, and I’d only been writing for the site for a short time. Zaireeka was already special to me because I’d recently been to a listening party at the Bottom of the Hill in San Francisco shortly after the date of release and heard the album “properly” on four perfectly synched systems. It was an amazing experience that set my mind swimming with possibility. I’m sure the impact of that listening party had a lot to do with how I responded to Pitchfork’s review. AlI I know is that when I loaded Pitchfork’s page in my cubicle at work the morning the Zaireeka review ran, I got really, really pissed.
Jason Josephes’ take on the record was one of the very few times a review made me angry. Actually, “angry” is an understatement. I wanted blood. I went over everything in my mind, and wanted to write belligerent letters to both Josephes and Ryan, telling them just how off he was about this amazing record. I had so many reasons why he was wrong I didn’t know where to begin. But I never wrote that tirade, and I’m not going to now. This is not a response to that review. I’m older now, and the rage has left me. Josephes didn’t have four CD players. Okay. Few of us do. Moving on.
Instead of addressing the original Pitchfork review, I just want to talk about why I think Zaireeka is one of the most amazing albums ever recorded, and how I think it is sometimes misunderstood. I’m not going to discuss about the individual tracks. You can get descriptions of those elsewhere, and besides, it’s been a couple of years since I heard them. Though I own the record, I’ve only heard Zaireeka four times. The first was that mind-blowing experience at the Bottom of the Hill, with four synched CD players pumping through the club’s monitors. The second and third times were on my own, listening in my apartment to a 3-CD “version,” and the last time was in the apartment of a friend.
I don’t own a single disc mixed version of Zaireeka, and I never will. While I understand the desire to own these songs in a format that makes repeat playability easy, that’s not what Zaireeka is about to me. Zaireeka is not just the album the Flaming Lips released between Clouds Taste Metallic and The Soft Bulletin; it’s a challenge to the assumptions behind the idea of recorded music. The fact that it this album of ideas happens to be bursting at the seams with fantastic songs is a bonus, but that’s not why the record exists. Let me tell you why I think it’s so great.
Zaireeka is transient.
As I said before in my column, I’m not a live music guy. Very few of my defining moments as a music listener have come in a live setting. But even I have to admit that there is something beautiful about the way a live event can focus concentration. No rewinds, no repeat plays. The moment after the music enters your ears it’s gone forever.
Zaireeka is stored on CD, of course, so you can re-cue the tracks is the synchronization becomes precarious. But like so many good things in life, getting the stereos together and getting Zaireeka’s tracks lined up right is difficult. Inevitably, the number of times you’re actually going to hear the record correctly in your lifetime is very limited. So when you do get that wonderful opportunity, you need to listen close and listen hard. Yes, you can always keep a burned mixed-down version of Zaireeka handy, an understandable desire because they are great songs. You can also go on eBay and buy a VHS video of your favorite band’s shows, and I would argue that the gap in intensity here is comparable. The only way to think of a Zaireeka mixdown is as a souvenir of the real thing.
Zaireeka is variable.
If you’re talking about a multi-disc Zaireeka experience, you truly will never hear the same record twice. Synchronization is the most obvious mitigating factor. Perfect synchronization is essentially impossible, so each experience will vary according to how well you can get the discs to work together. (A hint for those who have burned copies of Zaireeka: Each track should be synched separately; the record is not meant to be heard in one long session, as the speeds of CD players are too inconsistent. Once one track ends, you’re supposed to pause the CD and start synchronizing anew.)
But other factors inevitably have a significant impact on each experience. How loud can you play the record? Four stereos going in one room make quite a racket, even at modest volume. Which disc are you going to assign to your main stereo? As I recall, the most powerful of Steven Drozd’s drum parts occur on disc four, so give that one to whichever system has the most bass. And sometimes you can only get three CD players together, which means you have to decide which disc to leave out. The songs remain the same, to paraphrase one of Wayne Coyne’s favorite bands, but the listener’s experience does not.
Zaireeka is social.
One of the enduring archetypes of recorded music is the lonely soul listening to music in privacy. It’s an idea I understand well, as 90% of my music listening involves me and me only, either through headphones or when I’m relaxing at home. I’ve listened to Zaireeka alone twice with three discs, and it wasn’t that hard. I had my main stereo, my girlfriend’s boom box, and my portable CD player hooked up to my computer speakers. I synched the tracks by pausing one CD player after four seconds of play and another after two. Then I’d press play on the third, count “one, two” and press play on the one I paused after two seconds, then count “three, four” and press play on the one I paused after four seconds. This technique worked reasonably well, but I discovered that listening alone misses the spirit of Zaireeka.
What made my first experience with Zaireeka at the Bottom of the Hill so great was the communal aspect. There we were, 25 or so strangers huddled on the floor in the middle of the club, listening to music together with nothing to look at. We were focusing our ears and attention on the sound surrounding us on four sides, and there was nothing else going on. No conversation, no trippy videos, no guy at a microphone with a guitar in his hand. Just music. And that’s what should happen when people get together to listen to Zaireeka.
I subscribed to the Flaming Lips mailing list for a few years, and a regular topic of list was Zaireeka parties. People were constantly organizing them, inviting people to them, and giving reports on how they went afterward. Few people have four CD players, but most people, if they’re lucky, have at least three friends. Some of those friends are bound to own boomboxes. Zaireeka is a great excuse to bring people together to listen to music communally. When listening to Zaireeka, no one dares talk because a Zaireeka event happens only once in a great while, and you don’t want to miss anything. So we listen. Together.