9. In A Priest Driven Ambulance (1990)
A new decade, a new sound, a new guitarist: Jonathan Donahue. Another band hoping to make the leap into psych-pop grandiosity might have recorded on Timothy Leary's houseboat or a sunbaked Mojave ghost town or something. The Flaming Lips chose SUNY Fredonia, attracted to its Bell Labs vibe. Drozd and Coyne, in particular, were soaking up new influences, and Ambulance reveals a band attempting to translate their pet sounds into the songs they have in their heads, and mostly succeeding.
The key word is "mostly." "Take Meta Mars" is a burnout's recasting of Can's "Mushroom." The next track is "Five Stop Mother Superior Rain," wherein the band tries to disguise a "Sweet Melissa"/"Wild Horses" update with divebomb twang and postwar American disillusion. When the guys decide to kick up a racket, things improve considerably. "Mountain Side" is a propulsive highway ride on mescaline with some awesome ultralow frequency pan in the middle. The harmonic psych-punk of "Unconsciously Screaming" shows how far the band had come in managing tension and dynamics; reportedly one of their most worked-over tunes, the endless guitar snarl and McCartney-worthy basslines show no seams. "Rainin' Babies" is a supreme fuzz ballad, with Nathan Roberts (also making his Lips debut) judiciously injecting thunderous fills and Coyne singing from his heels about giving his gift to the world.
The album closes with a cover of "What a Wonderful World," which had re-charted on the pop charts in 1988 due to its inclusion in Good Morning, Vietnam. A long-time on-stage and PA staple, it was, despite its familiarity, the perfect vehicle for the band's endless grapple with wonder and despair. Coyne sings the melody straight against his and Donahue's backgrounded feedback and wrist-thick fuzz. The sounds of nature bookend the track; the ultimate takeaway is yours.