With ‘Fwends’ Like These
On With a Little Help From My Fwends, the Flaming Lips and “fwends” are back with a track-by-track cover of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, the Beatles’ first full-length foray into psychedelia, and the results are as chaotic and mixed as any of the Oklahoma-based Lips’ experimentations into covering classic-rock albums or collaborating with an array of pop and indie stars. There are both supreme victories and utterly profound failures.
Along with Peaches and others, they’ve tackled Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon and put out the forgettable Heady Fwends album featuring collaborators such as Bon Iver and Kesha. This time around, the Lips have brought out everyone from My Morning Jacket, J Mascis of Dinosaur Jr., Maynard James Keenan of Tool, Tegan and Sara, Moby, Miley Cyrus and about a dozen others.
The question for all of them isn’t so much “why,” because proceeds from the sale of the album benefit The Bella Foundation, which helps poor pet owners get veterinary care for their animals. The real question is “what the hell is going on here?”
While there are often moments of brilliance, owing somewhat to a tempered adherence to the songcraft of Lennon, McCartney and Harrison, there are scores of moments that are a chaotic, atonal, and bombastic mess. Leave it to the Lips to not simply jump the shark, but to scale an impenetrable “Sharknado” of vomited-out exercises of insincerity and credibility-shattering bunts, half-measures and elaborate inside jokes some 7,000 light-years removed from the band’s typical adornments of psychedelia. This is most evident on songs like “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” “With A Little Help From My Friends,” “When I’m Sixty-Four,” “A Day In The Life,” “Being For The Benefit of Mr. Kite!” and “Good Morning Good Morning.”
On “Sgt. Pepper,” the Lips, along with My Morning Jacket, Fever the Ghost and J Mascis, offer a noise-rock/synth-pop mess that vomits on the memory of the original. With a lineup like this, there is a certain expectation that is drowned in a sea of misguided half-truths and laziness.
“Kite” mines similar territory. Guests Keenan, Puscifer, and Sunbears! put on a minimalistic cruncher that drains the inspiration out of the ridiculous original cut, leaving a swampy, enigmatic aftermath that simply does not work. It’s certainly not sacrilegious by any means, but it largely becomes plain and uninspiring fairly quickly.
“Life,” recorded with Miley Cyrus and New Fumes, the emotional, human center of the original album, is rendered a barely recognizable mess of noise and insanity. It feels like an also-ran, which is sheer sadness when considering the power of the original. The pairing of Lennon’s melancholic verses with McCartney’s anecdotal, upbeat offerings to create among the perfect songs is just plain lost.
But Cyrus should not be discounted entirely, because along with Moby she helms the strongest song on the record, “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds.” The approach to this song should have been replicated across the entire album. It plays up all the strengths of the original, but adds that quixotic, electronic breed of color that defines the better angels of the Lips repertoire. Cyrus, for her part, has fun with the song, but in the honorific way it’s due. It’s cinematic, exciting, and crazy without being psychedelic for the sake of it. This time, Cyrus did not come in like a wrecking ball.
Other highlights include “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (Reprise),” which undoes any of the bad vibes of the opener. Foxygen and Ben Goldwasser of MGMT, along with the Lips, offer a tempered take that mines the Mothers of Invention and surf-rock to extend the traditionally short song with three and a half minutes of an organ-laden, beach-party jam session whose guitar leads invoke The Doors.
The rest of the songs largely succeed, bringing balance to the album. “Getting Better,” featuring Dr. Dog, Chuck Inglish & Morgan Delt, is spacey folk electro that succeeds beyond expectation. “She’s Leaving Home,” featuring Phantogram, Julianna Barwick & Spaceface, is ethereal with some great thumping beats. On “Lovely Rita,” featuring Tegan and Sara and Coyne’s nephew’s band, Stardeath and White Dwarfs, is another chill, psychedelic number.
Ultimately, the band is trying to do a good thing here with this charity record, but it seems that with a little leash the Flaming Lips might have been able to yield a bigger payday for the little critters.