Flaming Lips have made some of the most interesting albums in their more than 30 years together as band. They essentially define what psychedelic music – not just the multi-layered approach they’ve taken but also the oft-kilter and often otherworldly lyrics. And just when you think the Lips have done it all, they’ve decided to take what might be their most challenging album to day – re-interpreting The Beatles’ iconic Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Arguably one of the best psychedelic albums recorded in music history, Sgt. Pepper re-defined the genre with its pop infusion along with creating sonic landscapes that you could almost visualize (the accompanying film by the same name also helped).
For the Lips, the task was to maintain the spirit of Sgt. Pepper but at the same time change it in a way that would further challenge how people hear it, and they may have just done that on With a Little Help from My Fwends, making Sgt. Pepper even more psychedelic.
On the album, they enlisted the assistance of some of their friends to add multiple layers and complexity to each song. Some of the names are surprising, such as Miley Cyrus, who is a self-professed Lips fanatic; My Morning Jacket; J. Mascis; Phantogram; Foxygen; Dr. Dog; Juliana Barwick; Morgan Delt; Tegan and Sara; Grace Potter; and a host of others. So what do our writers think of the Oklahoma collective’s re-interpretation” of an iconic album?
I believe the Flaming Lips might be my most polarizing band. I absolutely adore The Soft Bulletin and Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots. These albums are modern classics and rate highly in my list of best albums of all time. As far as their recent work, I could hardly listen to the last two albums. I thought The Terror was a low point for Wayne Coyne and company. They seemed to give up completely on melody, song structure, and introduce overt darkness, not what I enjoy with this band. I was curios to listen to With a Little Help From my Fwends. I have been on huge Beatles kick plus the “fwends” in question were some of my favorite current artists, especially My Morning Jacket and Dr. Dog. Unfortunately what I have not enjoyed about the Lips recent work is on full display. Classics like “Within You, Without You” get too noisy and, thus, too obnoxious. My other gripe is the guest work seems overpowered by the Flaming Lips. I can’t even tell what contributions My Morning Jacket really had on “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”. I have to give this a pass. say do yourself a favor and listen to The Soft Bulletin and the Original Sgt. Pepper and skip this.
The Flaming Lips have seemed to go deeper and deeper into the “weird” hole as the years have progressed. Their latest project is a cover of The Beatles’ classic record Sgt. Peppers’ Lonely Hearts Club Band. The Beatles’ version is one of my all-time favourite records, and to be honest, I felt the Lips’ version could go one of two ways; either really good, or a complete disaster. I really loved their take on Pink Floyd’s Dark Side Of The Moon, which in my opinion breathed some fresh air on an album that’s been played to death, over and over again. But that was before they decided to start being weird for the sake of it.
Sadly, The Lips’ version of Sgt. Pepper’s which they call With A Little Help From My Fwends, doesn’t quite hit the sweet spot their version of Dark Side did, but it’s not all bad. From the opening weirdness of the first track, you know it’s not going to be as faithful to the original as their take on Dark Side was, but once My Morning Jacket kicks in for their verse, it’s clear this album is going to have some pretty great moments hidden in the over-the-top weirdness. I absolutely love Phantogram, Julianna Barwick and Spaceface’s take on “She’s Leaving Home”. Even if you skip this record, you need to get your hands on this track. Dr. Dog’s “Getting Better” is all kinds of awesome, and I dig Electric Worms’ take on “Fixing a Hole”. But that’s about it for the positives, I know I rarely write anything negative, but they managed to make “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” and “A Day In The Life” completely unlistenable. This is not worth your time, just cherry pick and grab “She’s Leaving Home” and “Getting Better” and the 30 seconds of My Morning Jacket and let’s pretend this never happened.
I will always hold Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots up there with some of my favorite albums, but some albums by Flaming Lips do nothing for me. With a Little Help from My Fwends is one of them. I will give Coyne credit for choosing some of the most highly revered albums to cover as some people were super confused when he did a cover album of Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon back in 2009. The Beatles, in my opinion, are timeless and awesome, and I don’t feel anyone could or should try and cover an entire album by them. If it is already great, why even try? “Lucy and the Sky With Diamonds” has been circulating for a while, so we knew Miley was on it. Some people hate her, but the track wasn’t bad; it just wasn’t better than the original.
Out of the 51-minute album, the only two tracks I actually liked were “She’s Leaving Home” and “Good Morning Good Morning”. Let’s just say I would much rather listen to the original Beatles album than this one. The one good thing about this album is that if you buy it, you are supporting a charity that helps low income families care for their pets. If you love everything that is The Flaming Lips, this might be your cup of tea. I will pass, I give it a thumbs down.
One of the things that I’ve admired about the Flaming Lips is that their sense of adventure. They’ve always been willing to tackle projects that most would fear to undertake because the music won’t be very accessible and would dense and challenging to listen to. At the same time, they’ve been able to take some of really wacky ideas and communicate them in ways that’s somewhat comprehensible. All these traits are evidence on the Lips’ latest experiment, With a Little Help from My Fwends. I have to admit that I was leery of listening to this album for two reasons – a) they were re-making or re-inventing a classic, and b) the list of “fwends” was diverse and interesting. For instance, I just never imagined the Lips playing with Miley Cyrus, Phantogram, Tegan and Sara, and others. Some of the collaborations are quite good and borderline excellent, such as fuzzy psych-rock opener of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” (you can hear J. Mascis tearing it up); the subtle retake of “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” (I have to admit that Cyrus adds a surprising haunting innocence to the song); “Getting Better” is wacky yet scintillating with Dr. Dog, Morgan Delt, and Chuck Inglish (Delt providing backup vocals is fantastic); and the synth-pop rendition of “She’s Leaving Home” that has Phantogram at the forefront of this multi-artist collaboration.
But then there are tracks that completely lost or annoyed me. “Being for the Benefit for Mr. Kite” is confusing and, to be frank, a mess. I felt like HAL from a Space of Odyssey was trapped with Alice in Wonderland (and maybe that was the goal). “Lovely Rita” also has an identity crisis. Is it an electronic, club song, is it suppose to be reflective of ’60s era psych-pop, or it is meant to be the background music for a performance art show? I also didn’t find Tegan’s and Sara’s voices to be appropriate for the effect that the Lips were trying to achieve, whatever that effect was. I won’t even start with the closing track.
There are some things to like about the album, but overall is feels too disjointed and incoherent from an album that was applauded for being a concept album. I guess that should be expected when you have multiple collaborators involved and everyone wants to add their touches to the songs. In this case, though, more is really just too much.
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