First Listen: The Flaming Lips, 'With A Little Help From My Fwends'
It's hard to divine, on paper anyway, a formula for effectively covering The Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band in its entirety. It's not an album that had been crying out for improvement — to put it mildly — nor has it ever receded far enough toward the cultural margins to require rediscovery. These songs still occupy the ether of the everyday, even for those who've never sat down and studied the record from front to back.
Enter The Flaming Lips, whose members have been playing with house money — or an artistic blank check, if you'd prefer that metaphor — for much of a career spanning more than 30 years. Last year's pulverizing and strangely pretty The Terror was often punishingly uncompromising, but With A Little Help From My Fwends tackles its impossible task with a comparatively light touch. That lightness is clear from the title alone, and yet The Flaming Lips' audaciously playful streak (required in order to cover Sgt. Pepper's in the first place) still gets undercut with moments of abrasiveness, aggression and detours down strange side roads.
Befitting its title, concept and intentions — all proceeds from the album go to an organization that helps provide veterinary care to needy pet owners — With A Little Help From My Fwends calls on a motley assortment of boundary-pushing guest players. These include obvious natural allies (My Morning Jacket, Foxygen, Dr. Dog) and the less obvious likes of Tegan And Sara and avowed Lips enthusiast Miley Cyrus, who turns up in both "A Day In The Life" and an appropriately sprawling "Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds." (In fact, "Lucy" reunites the team behind a bizarre video in which Cyrus and The Flaming Lips ham it up alongside Moby.)
Even The Flaming Lips can't cover such a canonical record without having to walk a series of fine lines — between reverence and irreverence, between adherence to the text and a career-spanning urge to fly off into outer space. There's obviously no sense in cobbling together a straight-ahead remake, but it's also difficult to imagine anyone seeking out a "tribute" album that cuts one of the most beloved classics in rock-music history down to size. But the band and its many collaborators ultimately walk all these fine lines by smearing, crossing, ignoring and obliterating them. The strange and sprawling result sounds both loving and deeply, deeply weird — which, for The Flaming Lips, mean just about the same thing.
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