November 4, 2014

Test Spins: The Flaming Lips, Drake, Gwen Stefani

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With a Little Help From My Fwends  – The Flaming Lips

With A Little Help From My Fwends is the Flaming Lips’ psychedelic cover of the already-famous-for-being-psychedelic Beatles album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. With one of the most successful albums of all time, the Beatles helped open the door for art rock and progressive rock as mainstream genres. The Flaming Lips’ version, more noise rock than art, takes this album to a new level of weird, with distortion, spacey sounds, vocal effects, layers of instruments and sonic dissonance galore — it’s a sometimes exhausting cacophony, but with enough redeeming moments and preservation of the original to be listenable. The best part of the album was Miley Cyrus, and I don’t even mean that as an insult.

The opening song, “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” welcomes the listener with a pulsing, electronic beat and a high-pitched crooning voice before breaking into a faithful rendition of the chorus. I thought this cover struck one of the better balances on the album, but I could have done without an earsplitting guitar solo interrupting the outro.

The next song is their chosen title track and features Black Pus, the entrancing, mask-wearing, voice-effects-using drummer (whom I experienced live when he opened for the Flaming Lips in Barton last year). “With A Little Help From My Friends” opens with a tinny drum solo and Black Pus can be heard shouting throughout. It was a little disconcerting to hear the famously pleasant “What would you think if I sang out of tune / Would you stand up and walk out on me?” line being spit out like an angry accusation.

“Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” is one of the two songs featuring Miley Cyrus. I’m not a fan of her music so I had no idea what to expect but I was quite pleasantly surprised — her scratchy subdued vocals gave the song a refreshing grungy twist. She should switch genres! The chorus was an explosion of guitar distortion and crashing cymbals that scaled back down for the verses. It was my favorite cover on the album, no doubt.

Other guests of note include Dr. Dog, whose laid back, hazy vocals fit “Getting Better” well. Tool’s Maynard James Keenan sang on “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite,” which was kind of crawling, like a Tool song. “Lovely Rita” had Tegan and Sara singing in robotic staccato unison. Other collaborators included Moby, Grace Potter, My Morning Jacket, MGMT’s Ben Goldwasser, and many others — it seems they did not just include guests to contribute vocals, but also instrumentals, giving the album an eclectic mix of influences and styles.

The best songs on the album were the ones that were unique without trying to do too much (subtlety is clearly not the Flaming Lips’ M.O., but still). Notably: The aforementioned “Getting Better” and “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” in addition to “Fixing the Hole,” a nice acoustic song with Coyne’s soft, echoing vocals, and “Within You, Without You,” which was very atmospheric and sung beautifully by Birdflower.

Other covers stood out less to me, getting lost in a bath of noise. I am not averse to distortion and heaviness in songs at all, but it felt like this album just had a lot of added noise for the sake of making it sound weirder. And while Sgt. Pepper’s is a concept album that flows from start to finish, this version did not always retain that unified feel.

This is not the Flaming Lips’ first full cover album: They covered all of The Dark Side of the Moon, so they are obviously not afraid to take on revered, seemingly untouchable classics. The idea to cover all of Sgt. Pepper’s apparently came about after the band recorded “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” with Cyrus, whom Coyne invited to the studio when she unexpectedly tweeted him to wish him a happy birthday. The band enjoyed the experience so much that they decided to do the entire album with various guests.

My favorite part of listening was picking out the different voices and flavors of the artists I’m familiar with. This combined with hearing familiar songs shrouded in different sounds and effects certainly kept the album interesting. Some people will surely think the band shouldn’t have bothered tackling this iconic album, but I don’t think they were looking to compete with the original so much as push their own boundaries. According to Coyne in an interview with The Stranger, “When you delve into something like Sgt. Pepper’s, you learn so much. It’s just a marvel. You hear what they’re doing, and it’s fucking insane, and you’re in awe because it sounds so beautiful and mysterious.”

I’m not sure they managed to augment the beauty or the mysteriousness of the Beatles, but it’s certainly worth giving it a listen if you like the Flaming Lips. And all proceeds from the album’s sales are going to a charity that helps pet owners who can’t afford veterinary care for their animals. So if for no other reason, buy this album for the puppies!

— Katie O’Brien

“How Bout Now” – Drake

Drake’s new single “How Bout Now” is a punchy break-up song that comes off as a series of rhyming jabs at an ex-girlfriend. He breaks into the simple baseline to reveal comically uncomfortable details about his relationship with this girl — “Always been daddy’s little angel / I bought your dad a bunch of shit for Christmas, he didn’t even say thank you” — and then caps it off with a teasing mantra of “How bout now? Cause I’m up right now, and you suck right now. Girl, how bout now?” Ultimately, the overarching sentiment of this single is bitterness, and Drake spins it pretty convincingly. The song is both incredibly catchy and genuinely entertaining, in all its minutely specific details about the artist’s love life. Not many musicians can pull of the sore winner, but if anyone can, it is definitely Drake.

— Lylla Younes

“Baby Don’t Lie” – Gwen Stefani

“If we ever give up / Then we’re gonna die / Look me in the eye / Baby don’t lie” — throughout this chorus excerpt of “Baby Don’t Lie,” the classic whiny tinge that all Gwen Stefani fans appreciate can be recognized.

After a six-year hiatus from being a solo artist — most of her time had been dedicated to No Doubt’s new music — Gwen Stefani has re-entered the music scene with this single and will be releasing an album in December. “Baby Don’t Lie” awakens her roots with a pop/reggae sound reminiscent of her first two solo albums — The Sweet Escape and Love. Angel. Music. Baby.

With the help of songwriter-producers Ryan Tedder and Benny Blanco, Stefani was able to cleverly craft this song to reintroduce her uniquely satisfying sound and still make for a catchy, pop tune that will be relentlessly played on the radio for the next few months. Although this song has a catchy beat and an inescapable melody, it does not serve as the strongest comeback for Stefani. It lacks any new twists to a once unique but now worn-out sound of Stefani’s that needs a revamp if her forthcoming album is going to find any success when it is released.

— Rachel Mack