Upon looking at the back of With a Little Help from My Fwends, I found myself both enthused and nearly overwhelmed by the quantity of “Fwends” guesting on the Flaming Lips’ Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band “tribute” album. And upon listening to the album uninterrupted for the first time, I found myself just overwhelmed, all feelings of excitement erased.
Seriously? I think to myself; and these thoughts still persist as I listen to it again and again, hoping to find some redeeming qualities hidden somewhere within the chaotic duration of this album. I expected to be impressed, but instead I am left with nothing but sheer disappointment. Mind you, I am a Beatles fanatic, so I may be a bit biased, but Fwends is all over the place, a mess disguised as a modern psychedelic imitation of arguably one of the best classic psych-rock albums of all time.
Of course, tribute/cover albums are supposed to allow some of the covering artist’s sound to leak through to create an interpretation of a work they respect. But it’s one thing to cover something and quite another thing to take another’s art and alter it utterly and completely; this is the result that The Flaming Lips achieve when they take an album like Sgt Pepper’s and garble it to the extent of being unrecognizable.
Foxygen, My Morning Jacket, J. Mascis, Grace Potter, Dr. Dog, Tegan and Sara, Moby, and Electric Wṻrms are quite notable, recent, and relevant alternative and indie voices, and they all appear on Fwends as well as The Flaming Lips, of course. James Maynard Keenan and Miley Cyrus also appear surprisingly and unfittingly as well; this cluster of varying sounds contributes to the chaotic and disorganized album. Many sound as though they’ve never even heard the album before, that Flaming Lips front man Wayne Coyne tossed a copy of the lyrics from each song at each artist last minute and halfheartedly said, “Hey. Look these over for a bit and figure something out. Oh, and by the way, this is going on an album tomorrow.”
It is apparent even after the first two tracks that With a Little Help From My Fwends needs more help than just the “fwends” that appear on the tracklisting. Half of the artists, even if they are noteworthy, are indistinguishable behind the messily layered synth that blankets nearly every single track. Autotune and other voice effects distract the listener from the masterpiece that Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club is and has been since its release in 1967 by The Beatles. Understandably, Sgt. Pepper’s may be daunting to approach covering, as its legacy is legendary, still affecting those who lived to hear the album debut and young listeners alike. But this “modern” take is nearly disrespectful to both listeners and Beatle members alike; it feels as though no one tried to maintain its sound in the slightest. Dr. Dog wavers off key in “Getting Better”, Leamen’s lack of effort painfully obvious, his ambition nearing nonexistence. Cyrus butchers lyrics in “A Day in The Life”, alluding to the fact that this may be her first time even listening to The Beatles at all.
Most tracks from this album follow suit with the exception of Wonderwṻrm’s atmospheric, woozy cover of “Fixing a Hole”. Of course, there are a few more shimmering moments of clarity on With a Little Help From My Fwends, but the key word here is “few”. The arrangements are largely distracting in this album, and tend to circulate without a sense of meaning instead of pushing forwards with ultramodern insight. The Flaming Lips utilize their resources to the extent of overbearingness; they are trying too hard to create a fluid, cohesive album that it instead is forgettable and unfortunate. While a respectable tribute album of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is desirable and coveted by many including myself, it is quite clear that this is not the version we have been waiting for. With a Little Help From My Fwends is naive and premature, and is a feeble and obnoxious effort at achieving the psychedelic status that The Beatles achieved; and Sgt. Pepper’s was achieved half a century ago with half of the equipment and 10 times the effort.