Recently, on the Sundance Channel’s Spectacle: Elvis Costello with…, guest M. Ward briefly mentions his appreciation for what he calls “timelessness” in music. He doesn’t mean music that stands the test of time, but instead music that, when heard out of context, could come from nearly any period. It’s a seemingly simple point, but it is also one we overlook. Fans and critics alike tend to applaud bands for being throwbacks or for representing the moment. It’s rarer, though certainly not unheard of, for high praise to pile up behind an album we can’t quite place in time, that meshes the old and the new into a murky stew. But when this blurry area is achieved right, it can make for a great and lasting sound.
And though Ward probably wasn’t thinking of Black Lips when he made his point, maybe he should have been. They are, most simply, thrown into the ‘60s-pop, garage rock corner on a good deal of album descriptions and reviews. And those sounds are, no doubt, a sizable part of Black Lips sound. But with their new album, 200 Million Thousand, they prove that they aren’t looking backwards for their sound. But they’re not looking forward either. Instead, they seem to be looking all around them, lost and bleary-eyed, unable to bring anything into focus. So rather than search for clarity, they bed down in the fog.
This tactic is definitely a move away from the critically-lauded Good Bad Not Evil, and it almost seems at first as if the band is being contrary, turning away from their big, breakout moment by releasing an album far less accessible than their last one. But that is not quite it. In fact, there are some catchy, single-worthy songs here that could probably trump a good chunk of Good Bad Not Evil. Lead single “Short Fuse” is bratty and brash, but cleaner than any other track on 200 Million Thousand. The thumping bass and thick acoustic guitar give the song a surprising texture that the other songs lack, and make for a softer bed on which to rest the band’s stringy guitar lines. The surf rock of “Drugs” is another slightly cleaned-up but utterly infectious track that, after the howls and unruly guitar leads of opener “Take My Heart,” really draws you into the album. And, later in the album, “Around and Around,” with its surgical power chord strikes and bracing group shout, bridges the gap between these lighter, catchier tracks and the fuzz and gauzy fray of the rest of the album.
But that is not to say that these clearer songs are so much better than the rest of the album, they are just the smalls breaks in the cloud cover. “Take My Heart,” though all over the map, still has a great, bluesy shuffle to it. “Starting Over” rides on a delicate guitar rundown, but gets smothered by the fuzzy vocals and ends up sounding like a Byrds’ song sung by a drunken hoard at a karaoke bar in Williamsburg. And yes, that is a complement. Elsewhere, on “Old Man” Black Lips take on the cool, aloof manner of, say, Velvet Underground on the verses, but brighten up the chorus nicely into some psych-pop haze. And on “Elijah,” the vocals sound particularly depraved and jagged—which is saying something on this record—and are laid over a gloomy fuzz that sound less more like mid-‘90s, lo-fi rock.
But all this jumping around in different sounds and moods, which all still filters through the band’s own late-night, red-eyed, basement-party rock sound, does not even yield the album’s greatest experiments. Black Lips do stretch out in some very strange and compelling ways on 200 Million Thousand. “I Saw God” starts off trying your patience with a confused and rambling spoken-word piece, complete with inexplicable beeps over profanity, before stretching itself out, in a much better second half, into a noisy tangle of guitars and animalistic shouts. It’s a fittingly cacophonic way to end a barely-together album. But there is a moment before it, with “The Drop I Hold,” that shouldn’t fit at all. It is a rap song. Seriously. The band lays down a grimy, rainy-day beat and Cole Alexander sneer-speaks every word with all the spit and bravado of a seasoned rapper. Surprisingly, the band is not playing this one tongue-in-cheek, even with the goofy beat-boxing and faux-record scratching. Instead, with the careful construction of the instruments on the beat, the song becomes a surprising highlight on the record.
As much as the bleary haze, and the constant sound jumping of 200 Million Thousand suits Black Lips, it ends up standing in the album’s way. The disc simultaneously points out both the band’s considerable talents and highlights their self-imposed limits. The band’s vocals have always been grainy on record without much help, so you have to wonder why they got buried in even more static on this album. It’s clear that the band isn’t interested in being accessible on every album, at least not in the way Good Bad Not Evil was, and that’s fine. But the fuzzy production sometimes goes too far, muddying songs that are already coated in their share of the muck. The best moments on this album, and there are plenty of them, let the performers kick up the silt themselves, through strained vocals or spastic guitar riffs. In short, the band is best on 200 Million Thousand when they trust themselves to tangle their songs and don’t leave it to the studio.
Still, it says something about this band that 200 Million Thousand is both this imperfect, and this good. It is not The Great Black Lips Record many were expecting. But it doesn’t disappoint either. And that’s okay. The day for celebrating these guys for their great album will come. Until then, let’s celebrate them for their timelessness. Because if someone came upon a blank disc with this album on it and played it, they could hear ‘60s psychedelia or ‘90s college rock or no wave or blues rock. Or, if they’re paying attention, they could get lost in a heady mix of them all, they could see the side-angle Black Lips take on sounds old and new. Black Lips have never been shy about putting their influences out there, but on record—and in particular on 200 Million Thousand—you can picture the bratty smiles on their faces as they mash them all together into something that is defiantly, and sometimes counter-productively, theirs.
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// Notes from the Road
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