Let me commence by stating my love for the Flaming Lips. 1999’s The Soft Bulletin and 1993’s Transmissions From The Satellite Heart are two of the most loved albums of their respective decade, admired for their ambitious soundscapes and cleverly profound approach to songwriting. Never afraid to reinvent themselves, the Lips have delved further into the world of studio experimentation over the last decade, with such works as the 2006 release At War With The Mystics.
This experimentation also resulted in several cover albums including a take on Dark Side of The Moon (here ambitious is an understatement.) Now, they take on a cultural phenomenon, The Beatles’ 1967 colorful masterpiece Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.
Over the years they have cultivated the same spirit of sonic exploration that allowed something like Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band to exist in the first place. However while they have established themselves as thoroughly meticulous in their craft, With A Little Help From My Fwends seems confused in its intention while simultaneously defining the term “hit and miss.”
When undertaking a project of this magnitude one must consider the weight of the social, musical, and historical consequences produced by the Beatles’ original Sgt. Pepper. The album along with the Beach Boys’ album Pet Sounds redefined what the recording studio represented for musicians, particularly powerful due to the pop origins of both groups.
In light of my own Flaming Lips fandom and lifelong Beatles obsession, my reaction to hearing about this album was mixed to say the least. Was this too good to be true? A truly dichotomous reaction, drawing memories of when Taco Bell began serving breakfast. I digress.
The first “rut roh” moment other than the album’s cringe-worthy title comes on the first track. The first moments of the original Sgt. Pepper are thoughtfully deceiving, as they contain one of the only riff-heavy moments on the album. In other words, recruiting guitar legend J. Mascis was nothing less than a perfect choice for this track. For whatever reason, heavy guitars are traded for a tweaking toy synth, a major oversight. This is the equivalent of hiring a magician for your party, then having him fix the sink while your step uncle does card tricks. However there is salvation, a roaring chorus followed by an excellently noised-out J. Mascis solo we all know and love.
The tracks “With a Little Help from my Friends” and “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” showcase the sheer overproduction of most of this album. A fine line exists between imagination and overkill. “Lovely Rita”, “She’s Leaving Home” are essentially butchered into overly effected synth pop tracks. Sorry folks, but let’s get real. It gets better.
The Electric Wurms performance of “Fixing A Hole” displays a more minimal and ultimately successful reinterpretation of a classic. The ghostly vocals of Steven Drozd coat acoustic guitars and tasteful synth noise. This tastefulness is replicated on “Within You Without You.”
The absolute best this album has to offer comes on “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (Reprise),” the second to last track. Featuring Ben Goldwasser of MGMT with Foxygen, its production is absolutely the most interesting and intriguing for this sort of project. In all earnestness, I would pay money to hear Ben Goldwasser and Foxygen cover Sgt. Pepper any day of the week. Hands down.
Wayne Coyne could have chosen anyone to accompany him on “A Day in the Life”, the most sacred of Pepper songs. While I have no real opinion on Miley Cyrus, I did learn from Wayne how not to cover this song. The sublime beauty of the verse is overtaken by electronica overkill. Once again, this album absolutely defines the term “hit and miss.”
While the reception of work like this remains entirely subjective to the listener, I was disappointed by half of the album. Alas, this is not due to an artist being “unfaithful to the song.” It’s a cover, I understand that and so should all listeners.
However, one must question the Flaming Lips’ judgment when overly panned synthesizers and purposeless alteration of melody bleed out an album known for its unique instrumentation and stunning arrangement.
Covers are great. Covers are fun. Albeit in the case of With a Little Help From My Fwends, the best tribute the Flaming Lips can pay is to continue making the original music they have succeeded with for decades.