Last May, the BBC announced the new Flaming Lips album, With a Little Help From My Fwends, with the slightly misleading headline, “Flaming Lips to re-record Sgt. Pepper with Miley Cyrus.” There was a collective gasp sprinkled with a variety of “what the fuck,” but people took the bait and clicked that link. In all honesty, should we really be surprised that Lips frontman Wayne Coyne is working with Miss Bangerz? He did record with Kesha. In fact, much of the attention surrounding the news of the release focused more on the mere presence of Cyrus with nary a mention to the song’s (“Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”) other collaborator, Moby, or any of the other 26 artists who appear on the album (27 if you consider The Electric Würms a separate entity from The Flaming Lips).
To be fair, when “Lucy” was released last spring, the Lips might have still been in the planning stages for the rest of the album. But the single got people talking. Five months of anticipation isn’t necessarily a good thing, though. When the Lips released their take on Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon in 2009 with Henry Rollins, Peaches, and Coyne’s nephew’s band, Stardeath and White Dwarfs, there was an immediate divide even Coyne himself recognized. “When we did Floyd’s Dark Side, there were some people who had these violent, outraged reactions to us,” he told Music Radar. “It’s like we defiled a classic or something.” And to some, they did. Of course, the problem is that a band like The Flaming Lips already comes with high expectations, and those are only amplified by a classic album considered by many to be untouchable.
If this album was a total piece of shit, then maybe Beatles fans (and even Lips fans) would have something to complain about. Luckily, it isn’t. The Lips’ latest covers project (this is the fourth, following Dark Side, King Crimson’s In the Court of the Crimson King reinterpreted as Playing Hide and Seek with the Ghosts of Dawn, and The Stone Roses’ self-titled debut, Time Has Come to Shoot You Down…What a Sound) may cause a collective eye roll because it is another cover album. But when it comes down to it, this isn’t just Sgt. Pepper through a Lips filter. After a number of listens, the album opens up, exposing intricacies and layers that at times even rival the original. Sure, there are points of oddity and obtuse Lips-isms, but would you expect anything less?
Again, there are at least 26 other artists spread over the album’s 13 tracks. Cyrus, who’s on both “Lucy” and “A Day in the Life”, and Morgan Delt, on “Getting Better” and “Within You Without You”, are the only artists to appear more than once. In a twisted little irony, some of the best songs here don’t feature The Flaming Lips at all, like “Getting Better” performed by Dr. Dog, Chuck Inglish, and Morgan Delt; “She’s Leaving Home” with Phantogram, Julianna Barwick, and Spaceface; and “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”, which adds a great, funky groove to its reprise. Grace Potter fans will be blown away by how easily she fits into the psychedelic mix, adding a freaked-out vibrato to her voice on “Good Morning Good Morning”, a track that also features contributions from Zorch and Treasure Mammals.
The album runs just 12 minutes longer than the original, but that additional time does little to distract from the songs. Structurally, this is a straightforward song-for-song cover, seamlessly blending all the tracks together like the original. The length is due to little additives like audience noise near the end of “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite”. These extras help connect individual tracks; they’re not there to reinvent the album. The fuzzy, feedback-y feel is pure Lips, and the psychedelia comes on stronger on this album than the original. That said, the reprise of the title track, featuring Foxygen and Ben Goldwasser, probably takes more artistic license than any other song on the album, but damn if it is not one funkified piece that soars to its climax.
In another bit of irony, the album’s low points are both Cyrus tracks. “Lucy” is a heavily reverbed take complete with so many twists that when the chorus hits, you can practically see this song being played live complete with glitter explosions and all the hoopla of a Lips concert — but it entirely fails to resonate on record. Listening to “Lucy” is perhaps the best evidence that this album should have been done as a one-off concert event in a venue like the Hollywood Bowl, not a studio release. The closer, “A Day in the Life”, once again puts Cyrus in Lennon’s role, but instead of being pulled into the story, Cyrus comes off flat, with absolutely no range. It’s as if she was trying to play aloof, but she comes off more apathetic, especially compared to the song’s other guest, New Fumes.
Coyne’s response to why he picked The Beatles to cover was simple: “Because people love them. I think it’ll generate a lot of interest,” he explained to Rolling Stone. Considering that many of the proceeds from this project will go to the Bella Foundation, an Oklahoma City organization that “helps low income, elderly, or terminally ill pet owners with the cost of veterinary care,” that interest will at least help the band make a difference. That said, I can’t reiterate enough that this project would have been better served as one incredible live experience. The Lips could have filmed it and then sold the video. Listening to the songs on this album, I can’t shake the thought that they’d be better received if the performances were seen as well as heard, especially considering how The Lips tend to put on one hell of a visual show. Instead, we’re left with a decent covers album that will probably fare better than their Dark Side tribute. But, at the end of the day, Fwends will still sit on a shelf wondering why you keep playing The Soft Bulletin or Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots instead.
Essential Tracks: “Getting Better”, “Within You Without You”, and “Good Morning Good Morning”