As I begin this review of Mark Richardson's 33 1/3 book on Zaireeka, I feel like I should be up front about a few circumstances and biases that make me particularly susceptible to coming off as a fanboy:
1. I really love The Flaming Lips, and have for quite some time.
2. My wife and I moved to Oklahoma about 2 years ago, heightening my previous enjoyment of The Flaming Lips and their music.
3. Mark Richardson has been my favorite Pitchfork writer ever since his essay discussing LCD Soundsystem's and John Cale's versions of "All My Friends." Since that time, he's one of only a couple of writers across the internet whose music writing I actively seek out.
With that out of the way, then, Richardson's contextual overview and analysis of The Flaming Lips' Zaireeka is one of the better entries in the 33 1/3 series. The reasons for the book's success are simple--Richardson sets out to teach readers about Zaireeka, and his information is shared with an easy prose style. In providing a survey of Zaireeka's creation and reception, Richardson begins with a brief history of The Flaming Lips, up to the point where they began experimenting with sound through the Parking Lot Experiments. Through this context, Richardson deftly weaves the band's personal histories with the development of The Flaming Lips as a musical entity and idea as they hit their stride over a decade into their career. At the same time, Richardson does a fantastic job of exploring the significance of Zaireeka as a musical text, and a work of art. In particular, Richardson's discussion the album's explicit challenge to the ever increasing importance of portability and convenience in music are particularly enlightening, and help position the album, not just in the context of the Lips's career, but in the history of recorded music.
The book loses a bit of momentum in its last quarter, as Richardson attempts to address the album from every uncovered angle in a brief span of time, but thankfully, through the use of personal narrative--a story of his own relationship with the music of The Flaming Lips, 90's culture, and Zaireeka--ends on a compelling note.
On a side note, I've noticed that the 33 1/3 books written on 90's albums tend to be feature some of the series' strongest writing. The books for Bee Thousand, 69 Love Songs, If You're Feeling Sinister, and Zaireeka are all outstanding. Part of me wonders if this is because the authors are writing more out of their own era and experiences, or if its simply a case of fresh ideas growing out of albums that haven't been over-talked by decades of rock criticism.