The problem with trying to critically review anything from The Beatles’ songbook is that many potential listeners are going to flay it apart as they listen very closely for flaws – any flaw at all. A lot of that has to do with The Beatles’ standing in pop culture and musical reputation; their songbook is revered by so many that its appeal is regarded as near-universal and that means anyone bold enough to alter any part of it will have their efforts looked at very, very closely. It is for that reason that trying to cover The Beatles in any capacity is usually regarded as the epitome of the no-win situation; if a band does it well and pays special attention and puts a lot of care into trying to preserve the spirit, sound and style of the music, nobody cares – but doing a bad or distasteful job ensures critical evisceration. It’s happened before.
With all of those problems listed above in mind, any artist who attempts such a feat has also embarked on a fool’s errand – but Flaming Lips have always liked a challenge. The band has always been at their best when they’re taking the biggest risks they can, and their front-to-back cover of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is a perfect illustration of that; they’ve covered the whole album in one shot here – not just one song – and really cut loose instead of trying to pussyfoot around the music and its reputation. Here, they’ve recorded a tribute which simultaneously presents several impressions of Sgt. Pepper (the ‘drugs’ and ‘psychedelic’ aspects of the music weigh heavily here and the saccharine pop that The Beatles always had in their veins as well as the Lips’ own punk and alt-rock beginnings are all apparent) at the same time and that approach plays like a fantastic (and bold) breath of fresh air. Most clearly, it captures/replicates the bravery that The Beatles showed when they made Sgt. Pepper back in 1967 which, for some, will be very engaging; it’s entirely possible that some listeners will be turned off by what they hear on With A Little Help From My Fwends, but some will definitely be [ahem] turned on.
Readers of this review who still aren’t sure if With A Little Help From My Fwends is going to be for them will know for certain as soon as they hear “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” open the album, because everything they need to know about how it’s going to go is there in that first song. Every instrument and movement in this running just drips with psychedelia right from the start; the sound and production changes from tinny to lush to thin to bombastic even more dramatically than the original version recorded by the Fab Four did, and will have heads spinning by the second verse because the performance is just so overwhelming. Listeners will be struck by the main vocal performance which is so high in pitch that it seems otherworldly (it’s not properly credited, but the best guess is that it was contributed by Casper Indrizzo of Fever The Ghost) and its interaction with the grainy, swirling walls of sound which accompany it; the results feel homemade, and the difference between it and everything The Beatles ever recorded is hypnotizing. Those minds who crave the weirdness that The Flaming Lips were germinating back in the days of Telepathic Surgery and Priest Driven Ambulance will recognize the vapor trails wafting off the mix here, and be completely absorbed by the possibilities those flashbacks represent.
From there, The Flaming Lips charge into the ether through the A-side of With A Little Help From My Fwends and happily show listeners some of the strange artifacts they find along the way. Of course, the psychedelic anthem “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds” proves to be the side’s centerpiece as it is (literally) the most explosive with drums and instruments clipping during the chorus, and it also features some of the brightest guest star power on the album courtesy of Miley Cyrus, but the beauty (and the best moments on the side) can be found in the corners of the (comparatively) smaller tracks. For example, who really sees Chuck Inglish coming when he gives the best vocal performance on the whole fucking album on “Getting Better?” There, while the Lips and Dr. Dog try desperately to throw the song off the rails with different members piping up to bellow and screech (needlessly), Inglish just makes his way through the song like the perfect eye in an weird tempest. The song plays like a well-kept secret. And who thought Electric Würms would break out acoustic instruments (especially after their first EP, which was far louder than anyone expected) and beautify this work with such fantastic artistry? Clearly, like any good acid trip, With A Little Help From My Fwends is capable of taking some thoroughly unexpected turns but, even more surprisingly, they all prove to be welcome – after they present themselves.
… And then, with one flip of the record, the whole demeanor of the record changes! Beginning with “She’s Getting Better” (which Juliana Barwick helms and presents the most intimate vocal performance on the album), everyone involved with the project seems to take delight in playing against type. On “Being For The Benefit Of Mr. Kite,” Maynard James Keenan hams it up hilariously rather than darkening the song. Birdflower and Morgan Delt help to turn “Within You Without You” into an elating transcendental meditation, while Tegan and Sara and Stardeath and White Dwarfs manage to make “Lovely Rita” [which this writer has never liked – before –ed] into the closest thing to a stone(d) pop anthem in this running and then Grace Potter adds the vocal sunshine to “Good Morning Good Morning” for a utopian moment which is completely devoid of irony. It’s remarkable, really; on this album, the biggest songs make the least impact, and everyone involved shines brightest the further they get from their established comfort zones.
“But does all this mean that The Flaming Lips did The Beatles justice?” you ask, exasperated. Well, yes and no (is anything ever as simple as yes or no?). What The Flaming Lips have done with With A Little Help From My Fwends is revitalize the spirit of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band but, as the difference in the titles suggests, the band does not simply attempt to pay tribute to it – they take the music into themselves and share it with some colleagues, metabolize it, make it their own, and show listeners what it looks like after that process is complete. Some will think it’s great (this writer does) and some will find it arrogant. How will you find it, reader? There’s only one way to find out: buy the ticket and take the ride.
(Flaming Lips Records/Warner Brothers)