The Flaming Lips would love to turn you on all over again…
They’ve re-imagined Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon. They teased some of us with King Crimson’s In The Court of the Crimson King*. And now the Flaming Lips and their band of merry “fwends” have brought us a new re-make/re-model of the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album in the form of With A Little Help From My Fwends, recently released on Warner Brothers records.
I have to point out that this album also has a really good cause behind it: A portion of the proceeds of sales from each album will be donated to the Bella Foundation SPCA pet adoption organization in Oklahoma (where the Flaming Lips are from). So that is a very cool thing.
Musically, this initially appeared to be a tough one for me to review and probably was a tougher one for the band to approach. I mean, on the Pink Floyd rethink they were working with an album full of songs that were constructed as launchpads for madness and free-form jamming, so wacking that out a bit (and they did!) worked for me. I haven’t even heard the King Crimson collaboration project (*it was a ridiculously limited edition release for some reason) but that original album it honored — In The Court of The Crimson King — was also a recording of sonic challenge boasting song structures that allow room for extrapolation and exploration.
So I could grok that.
The Beatles’ Pepper on the other hand, as cutting-edge as it was when released in 1967, is still essentially very much a tidy Beatle record, a pristine pop recording of concise song structures with verses, choruses and bridge sections. Heck, even the most freeform section of the album — the wild and seemingly free-form symphonic scream during “A Day In The Life” was formed around a very precise section (I think it was 24 bars of music) that the Beatles knew had to be filled with something fantastic.
Anyhow, here we are in 2014 and the Flaming Lips are around roughly three times as long as the Beatles’ lifespan as a band, and they are now paying tribute to our fab heroes from Liverpool with this spiffy new assemblage.
Reviewer-ly wise, I’m happy to report that this pressing is clean and mostly quiet, perfectly centered and issued on pretty darn gorgeous clear fluorescent creamsicle orange colored vinyl. The sound is quite good… but you audiophiles out there reading this, please don’t really expect this to sound anything like the Beatles album or even the Lips’ take on Dark Side of the Moon.
This is trippier sh*t, quite frankly… and goodly portions of the recording benefit from sliced-and-diced digital editing and special effects which are very much en vogue today. So, DO expect to hear many things glitchy and gritty on this recording, because it is intentionally not trying to sound anything like the Beatles.
And all things considered, I’m diggin’ it because it forces you to throw out your preconceptions of what this music should sound like and that ultimately is a good thing.
I recognize that throwing preconception out the window isn’t easy thing to do for an album like Sgt. Pepper, a recording that is A) widely considered to be in many ways near perfect, and B) deeply ingrained in the collective mindset of a generation or two.
]]>But then, I had to stop and think that, well, really, at the end of the day, who cares about it being ingrained in a generation’s mindset? Several subsequent generations of younger folks did not grow up with this album in their lives and on the airwaves. Thus a whole lot of people in the world don’t relate to Sgt. Pepper at all, viewing it at best as this quaint relic from an earlier time (if they are aware of it at all).
So… why not re-invent it for a new generation to explore and perhaps discover some of these great songs anew?
That said, the Flaming Lips’ 2014 With A Little Help From My Fwends is a genuinely noble venture that is already growing on me. Even the sort of trendy, overused glitchy production techniques all over this album are working for me after only a second listen. Somehow it comes together, combining grooves old and new in one big blender mashup.
That all these diverse recordings hold together as well as they do is a testament to producers David Friedmann, Scott Booker and the Flaming Lips themselves.
Not surprisingly, the tracks I am liking tend to have more of the Lips’ imprint on them, especially the tracks with Miley Cyrus (yes, you read that correctly!). “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds” and “A Day In The Life” are among the strongest tracks on this collection… for me least.
I gotta admit, the first time I heard Miley’s middle section on “A Day In The Life,” it made me smile really widely because for the first time I was hearing someone do something decidedly different with that part other than falling back on Paul McCartney’s much-beloved jolly double-timed we’re-off-to-work-flavored pop ascension.
Another really interesting reinvention is “She’s Leaving Home” done by a trio of Phantogram & Julianna Harwick and Spaceface, merging an appropriately haunting vocal and treated / cut-up piano sequences with circus-like trip hop beats and far more psychedelic ambiance than the original.
That the Lips were able to do an honorable cover of George Harrison’s groundbreaking song “Within You Without You” while modernizing it for a generation grown up on the sounds of synthesizers and video game soundtracks is fascinating. Created with Birdflower and Morgan Delt, this is a fascinating pastiche. I don’t know for sure, but I’m hearing something in there that sure sounds like a sample from Harrison’s equally groundbreaking first solo album, which was the soundtrack to the obscure British film, Wonderall (and if that is true, wouldn’t that be a cool continuity thing? I think so!). All the synths and weirdness also makes some sense since George was one of the first to make a record with the original Moog synthesizer, Electronic Sound, released on the Apple subsidiary Zapple Records in 1969. So in a way, I think George might have dug this new version a whole bunch.
Foxygen and Ben Goldwasser’s take on the Sgt. Pepper “Reprise” is pretty groovy as well, with a way longer extended freakout jam that you gotta admit you always wished was there in the first place on the original. Jimi Hendrix recognized this immediately, blowing out the song live in concert to let his freak flag fly gloriously just three days after the album came out in 1967 (and knowing that the Beatles were going to be in audience to see him perform).
So yeah, this is a good thing.
With A Little Help From My Fwends is a fun release and hopefully it will turn on another generation or three to seek out the original album (and other greats from the era that influenced all these artists) and explore another era of pop songwriting and production that came before.
You cynical Baby Boomer folks out there feeling dismayed by this release may well just like it, too, once you get your head around it.
So yeah, go check out With A Little Help From My Fwends because, y’know, the Flaming Lips would love to turn you on all over again…