As The Flaming Lips vow to release one song a month this year, Ben East wonders whether other bands could learn from their example
The album, it seems, is so last century. Earlier this month, while figures were released that sales had dropped for the sixth year running, the psychedelic indie rock band The Flaming Lips announced that they weren't going to bother holing up in a studio for months on end to painstakingly craft an hour-long record. The prospect of "spending another two years with the same 13 songs" appalled the frontman Wayne Coyne - and so, from the end of January, they've promised to release a track a month for the entirety of 2011. "It's gonna be: 'We're working on a song and it's gonna be up by Friday.' We just want to [release material] some other way," he explained to Rolling Stone magazine.
And while, come December, the 12 songs they've produced might not work as a coherent album, it will still be an intriguing collection. In fact, The Flaming Lips might be all the better for it: in limiting themselves to producing one track a month, they will probably be more focused and energised. The chances of album filler, under these circumstances, are slim.
After all, it doesn't follow that albums that are finely honed and meticulously crafted over months - and sometimes years - become the classics of our time. Ask Axl Rose, the frontman of Guns N' Roses, whether he enjoyed the process of following the rock band's 1993 album The Spaghetti Incident. It took him a full 15 years - and reportedly a staggering $13 million (Dh48m) - to come up with Chinese Democracy, its tortuous gestation becoming such a running joke that the record went from "eagerly awaited" to "not particularly expected". And what had he been doing for those 15 years, in which whole musical genres had been invented and then disappeared? Creating a tiresomely average album which could have been knocked together in a couple of months.
In fact, if Coyne's plan works, a course of "Flaming Lips" (prescription, just one song a month) should perhaps be dished out to every band crippled by the pressure of writing a follow-up to a well-loved album. It took The Stone Roses a full five years to come up with a record to follow their eponymous, era-defining debut. The results weren't exactly superlative.
Even John Squire admitted, years later, that the ridiculous guitar solos were excessive. Yes, the band had fallen out with each other, but it was the notion of decamping to remote recording studios for months on end, armed with only the sketchiest of ideas, that really did for The Stone Roses. In the end, they managed to cobble together a 66-minute album (aided by those lengthy guitar solos). But listen to it today and it feels like it's going to take all of those five years to get through the whole thing.
The Flaming Lips' new guide to speedy recording does have its pitfalls, of course. Like The Stone Roses and Guns N' Roses, Justine Frischmann's Elastica were struggling to come up with anything to match their well-regarded 1995 debut of arty guitar pop. Five years later, after the guitarist Donna Matthews decided to leave the indie band because they weren't sounding enough like her favourite act at the time, Missy Elliott, there seemed to be only one solution: record the whole thing in a week and be done with it.
Not, as it turned out, the best of ideas. The opener was Frischmann's first effort on a new piece of music production software, and one track was literally something recorded as filler for a John Peel radio show. The Menace was so bad that most people would have forgotten it even existed if it wasn't for the album cover: designed by M.I.A before she was a popstar.
Churning out loads of material quickly, then, is sometimes as inadvisable as mulling over a magnum opus for years. The Coral were undoubtedly shaping up to be one of the most important guitar bands of the 21st century, enjoying a string of well-received top 10 singles and albums. But the problem was they wouldn't stop making them - between 2002 and 2005, The Coral released four albums, and inevitably the quality began to wane. Either that, or people were getting sick of hearing them. As good as it was, last year's comeback single blazed into the charts... at number 188.
But The Coral are positively lazy in comparison with The Mars Volta guitarist Omar Rodriguez Lopez. Success with the multi-million-selling, Grammy-winning prog-rock band is clearly not enough for him: in 2009 he released six solo albums.
Nevertheless, Lopez clearly thought he was short-changing the fans, because last year he foisted an incredible seven records on his increasingly weary fanbase. Lopez, in moderation, is actually a pretty good multi-instrumentalist songwriter, but such an attitude towards recording isn't commendably prolific: it's profligate. Wading through the soup of jazz and funk-rock to find the tunes is, well, something that an editor should have done years ago.
But once musicians prove they can sell records, it takes a strong person indeed to tell them to stop. Who will take Jack White aside and suggest that he forgets about The Dead Weather or The Raconteurs and concentrates on The White Stripes again? At least the indie singer-songwriter Sufjan Stevens saw sense when he recently abandoned plans to release an album about each and every American state. He'd written, er, two.
So does more quantity mean less quality? Almost certainly. Even The Beatles were prone to filling classic records such as Abbey Road with nonsense like Ringo Starr's Octopus's Garden.
In doing away with the album altogether and concentrating on producing the best possible songs, one at a time, The Flaming Lips might be on to something.