Flotation Toy Warning
Bluffer’s Guide to the Flight Deck
lotation Toy Warning's debut CD, Bluffer's Guide to the Flight Deck, begins with the sound of lapping water. It is telling that there is a hint of danger to this sound. Thirty seconds later and the noise is obliterated by keyboards and electronic drums. Twenty seconds after that the vocals are there, setting the listener up for a mystery trip: "It was sunny on the day that the journey began / Seems I was part of a lack of a plan / Was I early? / 'Cuz you weren't ready" ("Happy13"). This vagueness and confusion runs through the whole of Bluffer's Guide, a record that uses traveling and occupation as a metaphor for, of course, life. This is not to suggest Flotation Toy Warning are inept. They are merely passing on to the world the disheartening, but sometimes freeing and joyful, existential crises that come along with breathing in and out on a regular basis.
The overall sound is that of an unhurried (and unharried) indie-pop maestro leading a band not on stage but down a street, in a parade. Songs are allowed to pace themselves (more than half reach beyond the six-minute mark) and instruments come and go as they please. The Flaming Lips are a common reference point, but they're really closer to the tightly orchestrated cinematic pop of Mercury Rev—the difference coming not only from a more serious, or less light-hearted approach, but also in the obvious attention to lyrical precision. Nothing against the happy genius of Wayne Coyne, but his recent willfully populist approach can sometimes leave a taste of triteness in the mouth. Flotation Toy Warning may not have the wild abandon that makes the Lips a perennial favorite, but with this debut they seem to be staking out a different sort of ground: maybe the spaceships can come along but the messy humans will be the pilots. No robots allowed.
"Everything you want is here / Though I better make it clear / This soul's mine / And that's the way it's gonna stay" comes from the Verve-ish “Even Fantastica.” The song boasts a creepy but lulling muffled operatic background while the lyrics point to a netherworld point of view. Is it death or is it a dream? Flotation Toy Warning have made a record that sounds like the moment between sleep and awakening. Holding that instant is an impressive feat for a record that runs over an hour. But the band does it, keeping the muted, weird moment always there, sounding so now and then, on repeated listens, moving back in time to something like Brian Wilson composing The Man Who Sold the World. The lyrics tell of human connections, self-doubt, and searching, simply put and backed with understated (albeit myriad) instrumentation and vocal delivery. The fragile comforting of "I'll tell them you were always frightened / Just like anybody else / And you cried inside just like me," from "Popstar Researching Oblivion" becomes the frighteningly clear glance in the mirror of "Donald Pleasance"'s "David, pass me the wine / Like you, I'm really not fine / Did I really mean her harm?"
Bluffer's Guide is that moment in a genre when everything has gone right. The noise is familiar but not overdone and the band sounds like it has even more to offer in the future. It would be easy to dismiss this as simple homage to those first in the field but Flotation Toy Warning have made their debut exceptional and therefore necessary for those who like their pop to come with a made-up film scene in their head. Just be certain the film is a complex people-study whose characters are not afraid to follow their journey to wherever its end may be.
Reviewed by: Jill LaBrack
Reviewed on: 2005-09-19