The garage rock revival has reached the critical point where the wheat needs to be separated from the chaff. For every genuinely entertaining practitioner—the White Stripes, the Greenhornes, the Mooney Suzuki—there’s a handful of wannabes clogging up the system. Whether the offenders are jayvee-quality bands garnering A-list ink merely by playing music that could be mentioned in the same breath as Jack White (say, the Datsuns), or fawned over by the British press (the Libertines?) (which, admittedly, is often similar to the former, but with use of the word “favourite” with a “u”). And to these two unnecessary garage rock offshoots we now need add a particularly odious strain—the sloppy garage. Billed as somehow more authentic and/or more primordial, sloppy garage is the drunken uncle of the garage family. And, while he may be fun for a while at the summer barbecue, his antics wear off and his weaknesses are exposed.
To wit: Atlanta, Georgia’s Black Lips, who over the course of 14 tracks on their self-titled debut for Bomp Records, flay, maim and otherwise mangle the holy hell out of garage rock. (While we’re ranting, how about a moratorium on colors in these band names? There’s too many to list, but you know ‘em. Just sayin’ is all.) Fortunately, music is resilient and can take a beating. But not for lack of trying by the band.
One important note before I continue: Black Lips was primarily recorded in late 2002, a few months before lead guitarist Ben Eberbaugh was killed in a car crash in December 2002. His guitar work appears on the album, though he has since been replaced with Jack Hines. My condolences go out to the remaining band members—lead singer/guitarist Cole Alexander, bassist Jared Swilley and drummer Joe Bradley—and their families. My intent is not to kick a band while they are down; I just write what I hear.
Had the band bothered to write any songs, Black Lips might have been tenable, on par with, say, the Immortal Lee County Killers, who make a similar, if more agreeable racket. As it is, listeners are treated to bon mots like “Crazy girl / Come rock my world” (from “Crazy Girl”) sung by lead singer Alexander in a crackly, poorly recorded vocal track that threatens to derail almost every song on the album. Fortunately, the guitars courtesy Alexander and Eberbaugh, messy as they are, fared better in the recording process. Simple chord progressions that run the gamut from Guitar Rock 101 circa 1967 (“Throw it Away”) to forlorn bloozy shuffle (“Stone Cold”) to surf-tinged (“Fad”) nearly undo the damage caused by the off-putting vocals. Harmonica and piano flourishes help too, but they’re used sparingly.
I’m willing to accept the album’s harmless first half—heck, at times the Black Lips approach the off-the-cuff charm of pre-Mothers of Invention Frank Zappa (think “Lost in a Whirlpool” off Lost Episodes or Mystery Disc‘s “Steal Away”, for those Zappaphiles among us), and tracks like “Down and Out” could be mistaken for (very) early Captain Beefheart. If the Black Lips cut bait and ended the album with the driving instrumental “Steps”, where Bradley and Swilley’s rhythm section nearly lap Eberbaugh’s guitar, the album wouldn’t raise my ire, and might have been the kind of EP to stir up buckets of hype while giving the band ample time to return to the studio and plan a well-thought-out proper debut LP. But ...
Black Lips’ B-side, meanwhile, is the kind of music paint-huffing 17-year-olds make in their garage on a rainy day. The countrified “Sweet Kin” is an incest ode that would offend if it weren’t so stupid. And yes, it too manages to sound as though it were recorded in a barn. Meanwhile, “Everybody Loves a Cocksucker” is a drunken, confusing, shambling rant that notes “It’s hard to be feminine when you’re not a fag” (I suppose that’s true enough, but still: Huh?) and “Aunt Jemima told me not to love her, but I can’t help what I do”. Hmmm. Does the band realize this song is on the album? “You’re Dumb” is straightforward, albeit sophomoric, and both the guitars and the vocals send the needle way into the red. Maybe these songs work in a live setting, but as a CD experience, the tunes are embarrassing. There’s no shame in having musical chops or adequate recording equipment.