That’s the first question that comes to mind when listening to A Little Help From My Fwends, the Flaming Lips’ album that covers all of the Beatles’ seminal Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. This isn’t an inherently bad question to ask, though, especially with this band. From making a 4-disc album meant to be played simultaneously (or in any combination) to releasing a USB drive of love songs inside a chocolate, anatomically correct heart, the Lips have always had a degree of quirky, unbridled (and seemingly unchecked) compulsion guiding their career. This seeming inability to reign in their impulse to do whatever idea comes to mind has resulted in a ton of great music and a feverish cult following.
So, going back to their Beatles cover album, without commenting on the actual content, it does seem like someone should have asked them why they were undertaking this project (along with their Pink Floyd and King Crimson cover albums). Sales from the album do go to benefit the Bella Foundation, which seeks to help in-need pet owners afford veterinary care, so there’s at least a good cause involved. As a creative undertaking, though, it seems misguided. Having an undying affection for an artist is admirable, even refreshing in a world of self-absorbed musicians and there are lots of other artists who’ve recorded versions of someone else’s record in its entirety. Ben Lee recorded and released online a version of Against Me!’s New Wave, and Ryan Adams apparently has an unreleased version of the Strokes’ Is This It floating around. Neither of those, though, was commercially released because, as I assume they realized, recording a cover album of a band you like and then releasing it for sale is like telling somebody about a dream you had the night before. It’s only interesting to the person involved.
Having said all that, this album was made, the songs exist. So how is it? The simple answer is to say that it’s mixed. And how could it not be? Every song includes at least one other featured artist, and the people the Lips bring on are varied.
J Mascis (of Dinosaur Jr.) gives the title track a taste of his I’m-not-sure-if-this-is-ironic classic rock guitar work with a full-on freak out solo. Pulling in Tegan and Sara to sing on “Lovely Rita” is an inspired choice, but the inflection-less vocals are delivered like the duo are being held at gunpoint. Why have one of pop’s (they’re pop now, right?) most heart-on-our-sleeve groups sing, and then make them do their best Wall-E impression? The most intriguing guest is Miley Cyrus, who sings on “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” and “A Day in the Life.” Pop’s current (and currently in decline) Queen of Shock fits perfectly into the Flaming Lips’ aesthetic vision for Sgt. Pepper’s, so you’d assume that she would harness her inner crazy. But in fact, out of everything on the album, her vocal contributions are played the straightest. Her lines are the only vocals on the album not drenched in reverb and they’re sung quietly and crackly, like she doesn’t want someone in the next room to hear.
The overall sound of the album is a muddled mix of sounds, from wobbling guitars, walls of keyboards, and random boops and beeps that sound like they came from a toy laser gun. While there are some good moments (“Getting Better” is fun) and nothing on the album is outright bad, it seems like the Flaming Lips are trying to out-weird the Beatles (who, with Sgt. Pepper’s, were arguably at their weirdest), but the result doesn’t appropriately reflect the band’s genius. The Beatles were a band that gained popularity because of song craft and experimentation. To ignore that first part seems to miss the point.