When I first heard that The Flaming Lips were doing a concert at Red Rocks in Colorado with a symphony orchestra several years ago, the first thing I thought was: 'gosh I hope they release this as a concert album!' Late last year on Record Store Day/Black Friday that album was released but it was sort of rolled out with not quite the fanfare I expected to see. This was perhaps due to the fact that there were reported problems with distribution across the country. As it turned out, I ultimately gave up waiting and special ordered a copy! Given my travel schedule this past month of January, I'm just getting around to reviewing it now. Better late than never!
I'm happy to report that The Soft Bulletin: Live at Red Rocks was worth the wait. The performances are exemplary and most importantly the sound is really good, which is no small feat given the magnitude and scale of the performers on stage here.
Now, I don't know if this is a digital or analog recording but I suspect it is the former and that's OK because they did a fine job creating a modern live rock recording in conjunction with a symphony orchestra. That is no small task to pull off folks and kudos must go out to Producer David Fridman for pulling off this minor miracle...
"Miracle?," you question... Yes. On The Soft Bulletin: Live at Red Rocks you hear not only The Flaming Lips with its guitars, synthesizers, multiple drummers and general madness but also a full 69-piece Symphony Orchestra and an 56-person choir! That's a huge undertaking!
The first thing I noticed on this recording was how good singer Wayne Coyne's vocals sound. I can hear every word he sings which is pretty remarkable when you consider that it's a rock recording -- which typically has the vocals somewhat buried in the mix -- and it is a live recording with a Symphony and a Choir!
So that part is really cool...
On this recording the band is doing the entirety of its 1999 breakthrough smash The Soft Bulletin. A little personal perspective: when this album came out, some friends overhyped it a bit to me, calling it the Pet Sounds of the 90s. I wasn't yet a full Lips believer at that point so I just took that concept in. And in retrospect I still feel that sort of statement doesn't do the album or The Flaming Lips justice (In some ways they did something more, it could be argued -- and I say that as an enormous Brian Wilson fanboy -- but that is another discussion entirely!).
However with The Soft Bulletin: Live at Red Rocks, with the full orchestra and choirs, I can hear more of the parallels my friends were talking about. This recording sounds much more organic in that sense, complementing the music more intimately than the layered synths and effects gracing the original album.
Another great thing about a release like this is that it gives the band the chance to revisit ideas they may have had in the past or which have evolved over time and endless tours. Thus, don't expect to hear a carbon copy of the original album on The Soft Bulletin: Live at Red Rocks! They do many different things to tremendous wonderful effect. For starters, look no further than the expanded epic guitar solo on"Feeling Yourself Disintegrate." It is is just spectacular (in fact, stop what you are doing for a moment to listen to it now here while you're reading the rest of this review)!
Seriously, this version literally makes me tear up each time I listen to it. The Flaming Lips tapped into that magic musical voodoo which sends a shudder down the spine and hits you like an arrow through the heart and soul. It also makes you really wish you had been at that concert! Honestly, this version may best the original album in terms of emotional impact (and that says something because the original always was pretty terrific in its own right!).
My other favorite track on The Soft Bulletin: Live at Red Rocks is "The Spark That Bled" which channels the Paul Buckmaster arrangements of early Elton John albums (especially "Madman Across The Water", with its pulsing low Cellos / string section). The Choir's impact on this song is just spectacular, again, reminding me of no less than the "All The Nasties" on Elton's Madman album. Special kudos to conductor Andre de Ridder for his formidable contributions to making this albums such a success along with The Colorado Symphony and Chorus.
The Soft Bulletin: Live at Red Rocks is pretty huge folks, one of the best live albums I've heard in years.
If I have any critique of this album is that I didn't go far enough with the packaging. I love singer Wayne Coyne's original artwork but it would've been nice to have seen this as a more deluxe package with the photos from the concert and such, maybe even a glossy booklet with more illustrations to complement the songs.
Personally I would like to hear this recording in high-resolution surround sound as well... I bet it will be fantastic! A full concert video on Blu-ray Disc would be terrific too.
You can hear the album streaming on the premium streaming services, Tidal (click here for a 48 kHz, 24-bit version and Qobuz at 24 bits, 44.1 kHz (click here). In this instance the Tidal version gets the nod for a warmer presentation of the music.
Any way you listen to The Soft Bulletin: Live at Red Rocks is good. Just listen. This is a powerful modern live recording that pushes many boundaries.