5. Transmissions From The Satellite Heart (1993)
As often happens with bands, the Lips converted Hit to Death In The Future Head's experiments in expansion into a set of tight tunes. Little did they know that one of them would land them on Beverly Hills 90210, thrilling their record-label masters. Steven Jones and Ronald Jones replaced Nathan Roberts and Jonathan Donahue (who left to focus on Mercury Rev full-time), respectively. Keith Cleversley takes over production duties from the Rev's Dave Fridmann, and the result is a robust mix that avoids Hit To Death's tendency toward thinness.
Some of that's due to fewer instruments fighting for attention, and some is due to the new guys' sonic strengths. At times, Ronald Jones' guitar tone conjures elephantine snarl, whining klaxons, or lonesome twang -- sometimes all within the same song. And for the first time, every track comes in under six minutes. That doesn't mean that the compositions aren't allowed to wander, though. "Moth In The Incubator" begins with Coyne's acoustic guitar and affecting double-tracked flatness, then erupts into a dread crawl, trebly squiggles floating toward the ceiling. The band then introduces a third section: a kind of triumphant hoedown, with Jones doubling his string-stretching twang with a flute-like tone. Drozd's "Slow Nerve Action" is the longest track, his steady muscular drumming a suitable string for hanging mournful picking and a beefy echo of the vocal melody. (The latter moans like a Texas longhorn caught in a bear trap.) It's indicative of the overall feel of the record: This is insular stuff. The quietest track the band ever released is here: their cover of "Plastic Jesus," a folksy spoof most famously sung by Paul Newman in Cool Hand Luke, Coyne's favorite movie. Stranded in one channel with quasi-steel drift blowing through the other, he's never sounded so tiny.
But there's no getting around it: This is the album with "She Don't Use Jelly," a jokey lyrical blessed-weirdo triptych, played straight with heavenly strumming and crackerjack tension from the rhythm section. Anyone who bought the record on the strengths of that freak hit would be greeted warmly with "Turn It On," a rousing statement of alt-rock empathy and an all-time album opener. And "Be My Head" is a real swingalong, with Jones's aforementioned Klaxon alerting Coyne to the ghostly backing vocals flying in and out of the mix. It's possible that he's not singing to the voices.