The Black Lips

[8 April 2009]

By Rachel Brodsky

There’s no denying the fact that indie garage punkers the Black Lips get a kick out of a little shock value. Do they hope to imitate rock ‘n’ rollers of years past (Ozzy snorting a line of ants, for example)? Or do Cole Alexander & Co. wish to become snot-nosed stereotypes of kids who never made it past high school? That said, there was a certain something about the Black Lips’ show that induced my hyper critical side. Had I really—after years of enjoying the in-your-face early ‘60s garage-punk produced by the Black Lips—been smacked with the “been there, listened to that” attitude evoked by the most reprehensible brand of music snobs? Probably not, because that’s never been my style. It was, in fact, the Black Lips who seemed to be suffering from indie snob syndrome. Their show played out solidly, chaotically, but sadly, a bit robotically.

Over the past few years the Black Lips have gained praise from many critics for melding 13th Floor Elevators’ style psychedelia with the unorganized punk rock of the Clash filtered through the Kinks’ early ‘60s pop structure. More recently, the band was heralded for their six-city tour through India, which was cut short in dramatic fashion when lead singer Cole Alexander exposed himself onstage (and I’m not talking about emotional vulnerability here), jumped into the crowd, and, upon returning to the stage, made out with one of his band members. Talk about a series of unfortunate events. After almost getting their passports stolen and narrowly avoiding a trip to the most unforgiving sort of jail, the Lips made their way back home via Berlin and have continued their tour in the United States. We should pause for a moment and just consider the stupidity of stripping naked in a country where religious conservatism rules, and playing punk tinged rock ‘n’ roll is newsworthy, period. Given their antics and hijinks, the Black Lips are all about inflicting musical chaos, at least as much as the 21st century and religiously straight-laced nations will allow them.

cover art

Black Lips

200 Million Thousand

(Vice; US: 24 Feb 2009; UK: Available as import)

At this particular show, the Black Lips ran onto the stage excitedly, ready to do what they do best. The bassist came adorned in a cowboy poncho and pilgrim hat, but chose not to acknowledge it. Crying “one two three four!,” to count off each song, the Lips shouted and snarled their way into “Dirty Hands”, which sounded like Beatles gone gritty. The crowd responded gratefully, glad to have the chance to move and push, and proceeded to throw themselves into each other in a state of moshy mayhem. Between songs, the Lips made a series of snarky comments, one in particular stating, “(I’ll) set fire to your face and put it out with an axe.” The audience, meanwhile, ate these antics up, and at a few points managed to climb on stage before leaping off, hoping a few hands would catch them. 

It was evident from this performance that the Black Lips have a strong effect on their fans. They feed off of one another. With every crash and shout emoted by the band, the audience responds with another push and beer shower. Peering past the Black Lips’ response, however, one is left with disappointingly little. Despite their international adventures, the group’s aping of seminal sounds, and their boundless energy—which should, in theory, produce an exceptional performance – the Black Lips hang about on stage acting empty-headed. They are talented, no doubt about it, but failed here to live up to their potential and promise.

Are the Black Lips a gaggle of kids that just don’t care? Or is their basic emulation of psychedelic musicians of decades past the best they’ve got? When experimenting with East Asian twang or solidly placing a few pop chords together, the Black Lips seem capable of chilling out a bit and letting their potential flow. When there’s an audience to impress however, the band becomes boisterous, overblown, and, unfortunately, a little bit annoying.

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