It’s time once again for the WTF Awards, traditionally among the most fun columns I get to write each year.
2014 has been a doozy for great, ambitious new music, so it stands to reason that it would also be a good year for strange, unclassifiable new music. They usually go hand in hand – the more exciting a year’s music is, the more bizarre a lot of it tends to be as well. So the WTF Awards are reserved for those records that don’t seem to make any sense whatsoever on the surface, those whose very premises leave you scratching your head and wondering how they ever passed the concept stage. In short, things that make you go “hmmm.”
It shouldn’t be any surprise that the Flaming Lips have ended up here. They’ve always been the weird stepchildren of the rock world, only occasionally dipping their toes into more accessible work like Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots. In recent years, they’ve only gotten stranger, giving us (among other things) a song that stretches to a full 24 hours, a complete cover of The Dark Side of the Moon with Peaches and Henry Rollins on board, a collaborative record with the likes of Kesha, Nick Cave and Biz Markie, and an even stranger psychedelic side project called Electric Wurms. In the middle of all that, they issued The Terror, perhaps the most off-putting major-label record of their career.
So in some sense, the existence of With a Little Help From My Fwends isn’t a surprise, since nothing the Lips do these days would surprise me. Still, the very fact of it is puzzling. Fwends is a full cover of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, the immortal Beatles album, undertaken with the help of a couple dozen guests, ranging from Tegan and Sara to Miley Cyrus to J. Mascis. Despite the lengthy list of co-conspirators, Fwends sounds like a modern Flaming Lips album to the core, and would probably benefit from the use of psychedelic drugs more than even the original album would.
The main question here, before we get into the meat of what’s presented, is why they have done this at all. Sgt. Pepper is not an album that needs new interpretation. It is, in my humble estimation, perfect exactly as it is. It’s the high point of a career that scaled higher points than almost any other. The very idea that this collective from Oklahoma could improve upon or otherwise illuminate the work of Messrs. Lennon, McCartney, Harrison, Starr and Martin is inherently absurd. Fwends is clearly a tribute to these songs in this order, acknowledging and celebrating their excellence. But to release it means that they see value in it as a companion to the original.
Cheap Trick, of course, did something similar a few years ago, but they’re a much more reverent band, and their version (recorded live) was a slavish copy. The Lips have never been described as reverent, and this version of Sgt. Pepper veers pretty far off script. In a way, that’s what’s needed – there’s no point in just playing Sgt. Pepper again. The Lips recast the whole record in their trademark synth blots and alien vocals and drums that sound like they’ve been recorded inside an exploding star. It’s a smeary, delirious mess.
That said, the essence of these songs is largely preserved, for which I’m grateful. The melodies are celebrated above all – the music that slathers “When I’m Sixty-Four” appears to have been constructed entirely from synthetic farts and belches, but McCartney’s wonderfully old-school tune survives, achingly sung by head Lip Wayne Coyne. Miley Cyrus and Moby turn up to add vocals to “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds,” but the arrangement is among the most traditional. “Lovely Rita” sounds like it belongs in a video game – one about tracking down a meter maid on the mean streets, perhaps – but Tegan and Sara find the tune amidst the synthetic noise. And yeah, the Lips do “A Day in the Life” seriously, replacing the massive ascending orchestra with blatty keys, but it still kind of works. (Cyrus adds a lot, actually.)
With a Little Help From My Fwends is right in line with the Flaming Lips’ recent work. It’s thoroughly bizarre, and kind of unnecessary, but it’s still an interesting listen. In fact, some of the most striking parts of it are the most bizarre, like J. Mascis’ far-too-loud solo on the title track, or Foxygen’s five-minute jam on the reprise. The fact that this album attempts to reinvent one of the best and most important rock albums ever made grants it a WTF Award straight off. The fact that it sounds like it should be sacrilege but ends up as something far more fascinating is just icing. Neon green icing dripping like alien blood from a 60-foot-tall eye. Or something.
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The other two awards this time go to a pair of almost unbelievable collaborations. I mean the kind of thing you’d expect to happen only in a parallel universe. Just imagine this: we live in a world in which not only do two of the strangest acts I can think of, Scott Walker and Sunn O))), exist, but they have made a record together. And it is extraordinarily odd.
I should clarify that I’m not talking about the Scott Walker who is up for re-election as the governor of Wisconsin. I mean the Scott Walker who made his name with the Walker Brothers in the ‘60s, lending his glorious voice to Bacharach/David and Shuman/Pomus songs, and sang Jacques Brel songs as a solo act. If you remember that Scott Walker, you will not be prepared for what he’s been doing for the past 20 years. Over three impossibly noisy and difficult records, beginning with 1995’s The Tilt and culminating with 2012’s Bish Bosch, Walker has redefined himself as an avant-garde sound sculptor. He still possesses a stunning, classically trained voice, and hearing it in these new settings has been revelatory.
Walker doesn’t care if you like him, which means he has something in common with Sunn O))), the Seattle drone metal band. Sunn O))) is heavy in the way that being slowly pressed under 400 tons of rock would be heavy. Their songs are thick, loud, slow, inescapably long affairs, with huge, towering, hellish guitars. They’re so heavy they almost come back around to ambient, their massive rolling soundscapes feeling a bit like sinking into liquid concrete.
So of course, I’ve been imagining what Soused, Walker and Sunn O)))’s collaborative album, would sound like since I first heard about it months ago. The final product is pretty close to what I had envisioned – crawling hellfire foundations of thick guitars over which Walker sings like a tortured bird. Walker wrote all five of these songs, ranging from nine to 12 minutes, so they sound a lot like his recent solo work – sweeping epics with peaks and valleys and moments of transcendent beauty. Sunn O))) proves invaluable, though, in conjuring a particularly nightmarish atmosphere for these melodies to live in.
Opener “Brando” begins with Walker belting out a high, lonesome melody over some chiming organ, but it isn’t long before the sludgy guitars appear, accompanied by bullwhip sounds and synth whistles. The song is subtitled “Dwellers on the Bluff,” a literal translation of the Native American word Omaha (where Marlon Brando was born), and the nine-minute song attempts to evoke the frontier while conjuring up something more sinister: “A beating would do me a world of good,” Walker moans.
This song sets the tone – Soused is a dark, punishing experience, rolling from one devastating hellscape to another. “Fetish” finds Walker singing about the dark places of the inside over mechanical whirs and clangs, and when it all drops away around the two-minute mark, leaving just that wavery tenor, it’s utterly captivating. The rest of the song is disturbing, in all the best ways. The closing track is called “Lullaby,” and while it may be the least traditionally heavy thing here, it’s certainly not going to lull you to sleep. Something dark and menacing bubbles just under the surface here, and it occasionally gets close to bursting upward, but somehow it stays just beneath. It’s masterful.
Most of the time, these one-off collaborations end up saying all they have to within a song or two. But I would be happy to see Scott O))) continue down this path. Soused is one of the most unsettling records I’ve heard in years, and it took the combined sensibilities of both artists to create this thing. It’s dark and powerful stuff, not for the faint of heart. But if you’ve liked where both Walker and Sunn O))) have gone in the past, this takes both artists a significant step forward.
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And finally, we have one of the most unlikely matchups I could imagine: golden-throated jazz balladeer Tony Bennett and meat-suit-wearing pop iconoclast Lady Gaga.
You’d be forgiven for thinking these two have nothing at all in common. Bennett is a legend, a classic suit-and-tie singer of standards who has been recording since 1952. He’s a tremendous interpreter of jazz and pop music, lending an air of smooth authenticity to everything he touches. Gaga, on the other hand, is a modern pop star with a reputation for crass and attention-getting imagery, penning anthems of individualism and setting them to trashy Euro-dance music with a touch of Freddie Mercury. In short, Bennett is all class, while Gaga is mostly crass.
But damn, their collaborative record Cheek to Cheek is a huge surprise. Granted, it’s more in Bennett’s turf than Gaga’s, consisting of 15 standards arranged for jazz band and strings. But if you thought Gaga would embarrass herself singing these duets with Bennett, think again. While it’s clear that she’s not trained in this style, she acquits herself quite well. She has a full-throated, full-bodied tone, but can reel that back into coquettish playfulness when needed.
Bennett and Gaga are undoubtedly winking at us by opening this record with Cole Porter’s “Anything Goes,” but their rendition is sweet, and features a sparkling sax solo by Joe Lovano. Gaga sings “Nature Boy” beautifully, stands right up next to Bennett on “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love,” and sashays her way through the wildly fun “Goody Goody.” (She nails the aside “I told you, I’m not a goody, I’m a baddy.”) Your first spin through this record will, justifiably, be about seeing if Gaga can hack it in this environment, and stunningly, she really can.
And Bennett? He’s a legend for a reason. He’s 88 years old, and can still swing with the best of them. Check him out on the brief “Firefly,” and on his solo spot “Sophisticated Lady.” These are songs he’s sung a million times, but he’s a master of phrasing and tone. He inhabits these tunes, wearing them like a fine fitted suit. Above all, he and Gaga sound like they’re having a grand old time – just listen to them banter on “I Won’t Dance.” You can practically picture them swing-dancing around each other, spotlights trailing them.
I didn’t know what to expect from Cheek to Cheek, and for orchestrating a pairing that made my jaw drop, this gets a WTF Award. But the album is such a blast, such a frothy good time, that even those making a purchase spurred on by curiosity will enjoy it. The record ends with Duke Ellington’s immortal “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing),” with Lovano back filling in the grooves, and Bennett and Gaga just have so much fun singing the “doo-wah-doo-wah” parts that it’s infectious. I was skeptical, but I’m sold. These strange bedfellows make a delightful team.
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See you in line Tuesday morning.