The Flaming Lips
With A Little Help From My Fwends
There has long been an argument among rock snobs regarding which is the true psychedelic rock masterpiece to have emerged from London in the late ’60s – was it the Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper” or Pink Floyd’s “The Piper at the Gates of Dawn”? Both albums were made under the influence of psychedelic drugs. In the case of the Beatles, it seems quite likely, based on multiple reports, that all four of them were discovering LSD at this time, but in the case of Floyd, it was leader and songwriter Syd Barrett who was gobbling the acid, and not the others.
The Flaming Lips, the true inheritors of the psychedelic high jinks at the heart of both of these classics, has come along not so much to settle the score as to reimagine the argument thus: What would it sound like if “Piper”-era Pink Floyd covered “Sgt. Pepper”? The answer is the Lips’ latest act of lovable tomfoolery, “With A Little Help From My Fwends,” a track-by-track reinterpretation of one of the two albums that most sane musicians would deem better left alone. (The other is Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon,” which the Lips already had its way with, rather successfully, a few years back.)
Rather than attempt to “be” the Beatles, something their ambitious but far less virtuosic musicianship would necessarily prohibit, Wayne Coyne, Steven Drozd and Michael Ivins opted instead to call a bunch of their freakiest friends to aid them in their quest to inhabit the playful creative space that originally birthed “Pepper,” metaphorically speaking. Those “Fwends” run the gamut from Dinosaur Jr.’s J. Mascis, My Morning Jacket’s Jim James, Wilco side project the Autumn Defense and members of Puscifer, to Miley Cyrus. All bend to the will of the Lips, who, with producers Dave Fridmann and Scott Booker, craft a contemporary psychedelic playground within which these much-loved songs frolic.
If you have a sense of humor, you’re likely to accept this in the spirit in which it was intended, meaning as a celebration of deeply imaginative music, and a reinterpreting of that music for the modern age. If not, you will probably find the whole thing sacrilegious.
– Jeff Miers
Jerry Lee Lewis
Rock & Roll Time
There are two things that may drop your jaw about this disc. 1) The sheer robustness of Jerry Lee Lewis’ singing. He was 79 just four weeks ago and while no one would claim he’s the equal here of what he was in his lunatic and uniquely disorderly 20s, his singing on “Rock & Roll Time” is stronger and more assured than most singers in their 30s and 40s. 2) The greatness of the guitar playing all through this disc. It’s little short of spectacular.
The co-producers Steve Bing and the legendary drummer Jim Keltner made a gutsy choice that paid off big time. Instead of featuring Lewis on piano all the time, they brought in a platoon of killer guitarists to kill right along with “the killer.”
That’s Keith Richards, Ronnie Wood and Keltner’s old buddy Waddy Wachtel to play on Lewis’ version of Chuck Berry’s “Little Queenie.” Neil Young accompanies Lewis on Jimmy Reed’s “Bright Lights, Big City,” and the Band’s Robbie Robertson and Nils Lofren (on pedal steel) play on Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues” with just Robertson alone on Jimmy Rodgers’ “Blues Like Midnight.”
Not to be left out, try Derek Trucks on “Mississippi Kid” and Doyle Bramhall, Jon Brion and Kenny Lovelace all through the disc.
When there’s a whole lot of Jerry Lee going on, it’s not hard to find guest singers either. Vonda Shepard (anyone remember her on “Ally McBeal”?) came over to sing on a couple of tunes and Shelby Lynne strolled right out front to sing across from Lewis on Kris Kristofferson’s truck-stop ode “Here Comes That Rainbow Again.”
Since it’s always rock ’n’ roll time to Lewis, he calls it a day by singing his old co-conspirator Chuck Berry’s “Promised Land.”
The disc’s great annotater Peter Guralnick gives us Lewis’ old reaction to first hearing Muddy Waters, Ray Charles and B.B. King as a teenager in Ferriday, La.: “It was like strolling through heaven. It was like giving birth to a new music that people really needed to hear. Rock ’n’ roll – that’s what it was. That what I was listening to. Even in church.”
That’s the original Sun Records Studio in Memphis Lewis is pictured outside on the disc’s black and white cover. Sun’s great magician, Sam Phillips, according to Guralnick, described Lewis as “the most talented man I ever worked with, black or white. One of the most talented human beings to walk on God’s earth.”
Still walking. Still singing. Still giving his musicians a smutty chuckle or two when the tune is over.
And still sounding great.
– Jeff Simon
Dave Koz and Friends
The 25th of December
I want Dave Koz and his friends to come to my house for Christmas. The pictures are amazing: people sitting around with glasses of bubbly, laughing as Koz blows that sax. And the friends! Johnny Mathis sings “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year.” Jonathan Butler sings a curlicued, luxuriously slow “O Holy Night,” accompanying himself on acoustic guitar. Gloria Estefan sings “Do You Hear What I Hear?” Fantasia goes overboard on “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing.” Throw another log on the fire.
Unfortunately if you read the fine print, as I did while wallowing in Kenny G playing “Let It Snow,” it suggests that the friends were all recorded in various studios. Oh well. I am in denial. I prefer to go with Koz’s version of events: “I invited some wonderfully talented friends over – we ate, we drank, we reminisced, and then we retired to the living room, sat around the piano, and sang some songs – first, each duet partner and me, then, before the party was over, we all came together for one last song, the Beatles’ gem “All You Need Is Love.’”
– Mary Kunz Goldman
Mozart, Haydn Piano Quartets
Alexandre Tharaud, piano
Joyce DiDonato, soprano
Les Violons du Roy, Bernard Labadie, conductor
Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 9 is known as the “Jeunehomme” because he wrote it for a French pianist who has come down through history as Mademoiselle Jeunehomme. There does not appear to be a Jeunehomme connection with the Haydn Piano Concerto in D also on this disc, but pianist Alexandre Tharaud ties them together with surprises buried in the cadenzas, plus he fills them both with the clarity and youthful spirit that distinguishes the Mozart concerto.
Listening to Mozart’s fabulous “Jeunehomme” concerto, which I often think ranks up there with his great piano concertos, there is no pretending that Haydn was the equal of Mozart. Dear Haydn admitted as much. Paul Johnson, in his recent book on Mozart, includes a bittersweet quote from the older master: “People have said I had some genius, but he was far superior.” But the Haydn is worth hearing, and Tharaud’s passion for the piece is catching.
Between the two concertos are Mozart’s Rondo for Piano and Orchestra in A, K. 386, which gets the same bright treatment. And the famed soprano Joyce DiDonato sings the Concert Aria K. 505 that Mozart wrote for the Irish singer Nancy Storace. DiDonato is good, but I have a thing about the ending to this piece – I can’t ever find a singer who gets it right. Mozart is leading the singer up, up, up – and then there is this whoop of joy, and nobody gets it. Everyone sings it as if it’s this studied exercise. There should be that spirit of joy, especially on a disc as joyous as this one.
– Mary Kunz Goldman