On their sixth studio album, produced by Mark Ronson, Black Lips demonstrate they can mature without growing up, and have made their best album to date.
Here's a band that's gone through three lineup changes (and one founding band member's death) since their debut in 2000, have played loosely with the borders of the expansive garage punk genre, and still managed to get often rave reviews from listeners and critics. Part of their success might be their legendarily GG Allinesque live performances, which reflect back on and mediate the listener's recorded experience. More likely it is that they record albums that are nearly as entertaining as their live performances. Arabia Mountain, the band's sixth studio album, may in fact be their best yet, and if it's not, it's certainly their most (but not overly) polished and catchy to date.
No surprise then that Arabia Mountain was produced by wunderkind of mix Mark Ronson, who has produced superstars like Amy Winehouse? Not exactly. There was certainly trepidation among some fans when word of Ronson's intervention appeared. The Lips had never before used a producer! Enter thrice Grammy-fied Ronson, who claimed he loved the band's music and/but wanted to help them "take it to the next level" after their 2009 album 200 Million Thousand was dubbed their endearingly loosest and sloppiest yet. Would he finally make these ne'er do wells take showers, comb their hair, and raise the toilet lid before peeing (assuming he could get them to use a toilet at all)?
They are indeed somewhat more polished, in that horns, xylophones, and even theramin accompaniment sound like they're growing organically out of fuzzy guitars and periodically screechy vocals. The band has also admitted that Ronson played a role in re-composing some songs, most significantly "Mr. Driver", which was originally a straight-up choppy punk number, but after being Ronsonized, sounds like Yo La Tengo's "From a Motel 6" had they been more loyal to '60s psych-tinged garage. It's probably the most angular departure toward '90s Indie rock and away from their late '60s influences without losing the latter, at once beautifully ethereal and rocking. However, fans will be pleased to hear that Ronson certainly has not taken the devil or the drugs out of the Black Lips. Arabia Mountain will not be known as the album where the Black Lips finally grew up and became boring. If this album is a sense of where they're going, however they may develop in the future, they will not, even cannot, grow up -- not completely.
Never producing a monotonous set of album tracks, the Lips have, depending on the track and album, been somewhere between the Stones, the Seeds, the Ramones, and Billy Childish (to spare you the more obscure influences they leak out in interviews), to produce a sound they once dubbed "flower punk". In addition to a punchy, often raucously catchy quality to their version of garage pop, they also offer a lyrical humor that keeps audiences paying attention as much as bouncing around viscerally, which is not surprising for a band that has defined itself thematically as comic and morose. Arabia Mountain features sixteen tracks, fifteen of which are under three minutes and dance-inducing, even in their periodic spookiness.
The album is well defined by its opening track, "Family Tree", a wonderful union of tame and agressive. It begins with a poutily smooth vocal delivery, almost like a fast tempo Conor Oberst, before unleashing a screaming chorus: "Feels so cold, walk with me / Down to the family tree / Can I take you down, down to the family tree / Can I take you out, take you out with me / Take you out to the family tree." The track has a foreboding darkness to its otherwise irresistibly upbeat tempo and melodic, if sometimes near screaming vocals and scratchy sax. Lead singer Cole Alexander's southern twang also rings out, which some, no doubt, find channeling the British late '60s engagement with blues, or garage vocals marked by a kind of pouty swagger reminiscent of Mick Jagger, or Thirteenth Floor Elevators' weird mix of well-behaved melodies, primordial Roky Erickson yelps, and psychedelic jug sounds. These guys are, after all, beanbag scholars of '60s rock, especially garage.
The sax is also prominent in a downright jazzy way on the otherwise dark-humored bounce-around "Mad Dog". The tongue-in-cheek lyrics are about the "backmasking" technique of planting messages on records, which can be discovered by playing them backwards and has been associated with devil worshipers (as in the 1985 Judas Priest trial, which they reference): "Listen to it closely 'cause it's scary and you might get confused (a-ha-ha-ha) / Choose your message wisely because it just might be the last thing you do / Counterclockwise, open your eyes / Play it backwards, spin it faster / God lived like a devil dog, a goddam mad mad dog".
In fact, the album has its share of demon and devil references, which is perhaps no surprise given the background and interests of these guys. Bassist Jared Swilley's preacher father recently made music tabloid news after coming out as gay, and Swilley has said publicly that, on his father's side of the family, every man he can think of is and was involved with the church. Not far from the family tree, the Lips seem obsessed with pop theories of American moral corruption. In "The Lie", Alexander sings, "Demon body is about the others / And sent evil armies to fulfill the world / With burning flames and pissing eyes / Sedating you with salacious lies." Drummer Bradley actually finger picks an acoustic guitar before the song explodes in a mini-guitar jam and a delivery that mixes whispers with blood-curdling yelps. "Spidey's Curse" also ends with filler about demons conjured out of a book and channeled into a song, which recalls the lunatic ravings of horror filmmaker Mike Borchardt in American Movie.
Tracks like "Spidey's Curse" and "Bone Marrow" have a strong '60s jangle (almost sunshine) pop aspect to them. The latter is a jingly-jangly clapper-stomper that reminds one of Glasvegas with a theramin, which cleverly works the Happy Days' Pinky Tuscadero into a rhyme! The guitar riffs on "Spidey's Curse" might be traced back to original '60s jangle pop such as the Beatles doing "Words of Love" or the Ramones of "Needles and Pins". It is certainly not the punk or "noise" with which they have sometimes explicitly identified themselves (though perhaps more in attitude than sound), but it has their irrepressible playfulness and reliable knack for melody. With a little inquiry, it might inspire teenage punks to start downloading Yardbirds, Who, Byrds and Beach Boys tracks.
The album is full of other winks if not direct salutes to the past. "Noc-A-Homa" sounds like a garage fuzz makeover of the Beatles' "Ticket to Ride" riff, while "Don't You Mess Up My Baby" has a Bo Diddley guitar-anchored chorus around which you get twangy Byrds riffs and a low-mixed fuzz undercurrent, as Cole Alexander recounts: "You smoked all my dope, chased a rainbow, and then you sang a song / You drank all the beer, picked some flowers, and things were going strong." An interesting facet of this song's lyrics is the kind of refrain at the end of each verse: "Now settle down and have some children cuz your brain is fried." Each verse is full of references to American youth pop culture mixed with drugs, from meta-amphetamines, to Dr. Pepper, Nicorette, and Cap'n'Crunch. This a vigorous thumbing-the-nose at those who say, "grow up!" As in the Tom Waits song, those who present themselves as grown up don't give the rest of us much inspiration to follow them. The Lips tirelessly, ironically remind us so.
Arabia Mountain ends with the only track that chimes past four minutes, "Keep on Runnin'", an ominious, psychedelically unctuous tour de force. There's a wonderful expressionism to that sound that complements the lyrics. The listener is captive to bewitching distorted vocals warning us that we can't hide and are doomed to keep moving, running. Talk about channeling demons: This is "The End", my friend. A lyrical hallucination that summons "blue-eyed devils" (of course), Civil War "carpetbaggers," and "terrorist bollweevils" (the latter being the mid-20th Century political slang for conservative Southern Democrats). So many things one can't escape: The family tree, lies, Spidey's childhood, time…Perfect.
From backmasking to know-it-all moralists, Arabia Mountain is sprinkled with themes of human folly, aging, change, and corruption, enacted with humorous efficiency, delivered with instrumental -- new word -- subtlety, all to show, unsurprisingly, that the Black Lips differ greatly with the PTA over the corrupting agents of everyday life and their antidotes. If you share their general outlook, this album will be one of the best medicines leisure can buy for temporary relief from contemporary life.