Back in the mid-1980s, the easiest way for underground bands to draw ideological battlelines separating themselves from their 1970s arena-rock antecedents was to appropriate their most hallowed songs for devious ends. And so we got J. Mascis moaning his way through Peter Frampton’s “Show Me the Way”, the Minutemen chopping Van Halen songs in half, Pussy Galore licking the burnt spoons littered throughout the Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main Street, Sonic Youth swiping the title of CCR’s “Bad Moon Rising” for their Reagan-era state-of-the-union address, and the Butthole Surfers grinding Black Sabbath’s “Sweet Leaf” into skunk weed. In this context, what made the early, garage-punk iteration of the Flaming Lips so strange was not their sordid subject matter, disturbing cover art, or 23-minute acid-rock jams. It was their contrarian reverence for tradition, with the band dropping straight-faced covers of Led Zeppelin’s “Thank You” and Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World” into their repertoire for no other reason than they loved the songs.
As the Lips scored sudden mainstream success in the early ’90s with a fluke MTV hit, their cover choices turned decidedly more esoteric, as the band used their modicum of celebrity to shine a light on known artists’ lesser-known work, reclaim new-wave novelties, or to promote then-unheralded underground peers. But in the post-Soft Bulletin era—during which the Lips’ music became both more tonally serious and relentlessly experimental—cover songs have become a necessary salve through which the band can reassert their playful side and maintain the circus-like atmosphere at their concerts even when touring behind decidedly more downcast material.
And ever since they trotted out old warhorses like “Bohemian Rhapsody” and “War Pigs” on their 2006 At War With the Mystics tour, the Lips have seemingly been on a mission to modernize the entire classic-rock canon, by curating full-album, collaboration-heavy reconstructions of Pink Floyd and King Crimson milestones (with a Stone Roses debut-album redux thrown in to show they’re still fond of music made after 1980). But while such recurring retro-gazing exercises may seem antithetical to the adventurous, boundary-pushing ethos the Lips displayed on 2009’s Embryonic and last year’s The Terror, the mere task of making the most totemic (and, by extension, contemptuously overplayed) rock songs of all time seem fresh presents its own formidable challenge, one they’ve answered by gradually shifting their cover-song approach from faithfully sacred to kill-yer-idols profane. Now comes the greatest challenge of all: tackling the Beatles’ Summer-of-Love soundtrack Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, a generation-defining achievement so masterful that its very title has become the official shorthand descriptor for masterful achievements.
The Lips aren’t the first to give Pepper a shake, but even the post-punk/new pop makeover the album received on the 1988 NME-curated comp Sgt. Pepper Knew My Father—complete with Mark E. Smith warbling “A Day in the Life”—feels overly staid and deferential compared to what transpires here. And even by the standards of the Lips’ previous tribute-album overhauls, With a Little From My Fwends is a colossal, chaotic undertaking, its 27-collaborator guest list bringing together pop singers (Miley Cyrus, Tegan & Sara), fellow alt-rock veterans (J. Mascis, Tool’s Maynard James Keenan), Bonnaroo royalty (My Morning Jacket, Dr. Dog), indie phenoms (Foxygen, Phantogram), and maverick MCs (Cool Kid Chuck Inglish), alongside the usual army of Lips affiliates like New Fumes and Stardeath & White Dwarfs. And where previous experiments were limited to Record Store Day releases or iTunes exclusives, this one is a more widely publicized benefit album for the Bella Foundation, an Oklahoma City-based animal shelter that provides crucial veterinary services to low-income pet owners. But while the charitable component lends With a Little From My Fwends a noble purpose beyond just being another Wayne Coyne-commandeered, clown-car-filling amusement, the end result occasionally suggests your time might be better spent revisiting the original album and making a direct donation.
One of the great breakthroughs of Sgt. Pepper was how it used the recording studio to create a vivid, three-dimensional sense of space and place, bringing the lyrics to life in audio-storybook form. (Think of the live-concert ambience of the opening title-track “With a Little Help From My Friends” suite, or the carnival-esque clamor of “Being For the Benefit of Mr. Kite!”; even the clarinet refrain of “When I’m Sixty Four” gives off the musty scent of a grandparent’s house.) But the Lips and Fwends go to town on these songs with little regard for thematic resonance or big-picture atmosphere. In the spirit of the aforementioned 80s-era indie cover-song desecrations, these aren’t so much revisions as disembowelments that replace the guts of the originals with a tangle of short-circuiting exposed wires. And given that the Lips weren’t even around to supervise all of their guest contributions (Coyne and co. actually only appear on a handful of tracks), things undoubtedly get messy quick, if not downright hazardous. With its scatterbrained, kinder-pop take on the title track (which climaxes with an arrhythmic, atonal guitar solo from J. Mascis), and a strangulated call-and-response between Wilco offshoot the Autumn Defense and Lightning Bolt’s Brian Chippendale (aka Black Pus) on “With a Little Help From My Friends”, the project effectively gives Sgt. Pepper the shreds treatment.
Of course, even the most successful cover songs in pop history are inherently blasphemous—in that they suggest unexplored avenues that the original could’ve taken, coax lurking undercurrents to the fore, and cast the source material in an entirely new light. But the problem with a lot of these versions is that they’re unruly on just a surface level. Whether it’s the wobbly-kneed Dr. Dog/Morgan Delt/Chuck Inglish gang-up on “Getting Better”, Maynard James Keenan’s inert, industrialized “Mr. Kite!”, or Def Rain and Pitchwafuzz’s vocoderized, static-swirled “When I’m Sixty Four”, the Lips’ Fwends are so intent on tripping up the songs’ rhythmic momentum and weirding up the basic melodies with hammy vocals that they ultimately reinforce their sturdiness. They’re trashing all the furniture in the house, but not bulldozing any walls to open up new vantages.
It’s the simple revisions that yield the greatest revelations. The Electric Würms—aka the Lips alter-ego aggregate that promotes Steven Drozd to lead vocalist—recast “Fixing a Hole” as a charmingly low-key psych-folk reverie that amplifies the song’s slow-percolating existential ennui; Stardeath’s stuttering synth-funk take on “Lovely Rita” is given a sly queer spin by guests Tegan and Sara (while their robotic delivery —coupled with the song’s mechanistic motion—craftily adapts the song to a modern world where parking enforcement is largely an automated process). And while Foxygen—with the help of MGMT’s Ben Goldwasser—stretch out the Sgt. Pepper title-track reprise to nearly triple the original’s length (making it even longer than the song it’s supposed to set up, “A Day in the Life”), it’s transformed into precisely the sort of wiggy organ-pumped workout Billy Shears and the boys might have used to close down some imaginary festival set on the Isle of Wight.
Ironically, the seemingly most outrageous aspect of this entire endeavour—i.e., the mere presence of Miley Cyrus—proves to be its grounding force. On an album where everyone is trying way too hard to out-freak one another, Cyrus—much like the Led Zep-loving Lips of the ’80s—stands out by simply playing it straight (which feels strange in and of itself). Tellingly, she’s entrusted with the album’s two most celebrated songs, turning in effective duets with Coyne on a splendorous, slow-motion surge through “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” and a suitably mournful “A Day in the Life”, where she handles an electro-ticked, space-age update of Paul McCartney’s middle eight (and really does sound like she just woke up, fell out of bed, and dragged a comb across her head). Curiously, the relatively reverential reading of the latter song leaves out its most notorious feature—that dramatic, sustained piano-pounded finale. The omission is both intentionally heretical (how can you end that song any other way?) yet oddly reverential, suggesting that, even if you’re subjecting one of the most revered albums of all time to sadistic sonic surgery, some things are sacred. According to the eternally loopy logic of the Flaming Lips, reinforcing a spiritual connection to your greatest influence means cutting the chord.
from Album Reviews – Pitchfork http://ift.tt/12NAGDc