If the Black Lips have been driving the shiny sedan that was Arabia Mountain for a while now, who could blame them? It was a sweet ride. Not only was that 2011 album in keeping with their ramshackle re-dux of all things fun, raw rock’n’roll, but—via some production tweaks from Mark Ronson and cool vids, not to mention a late-in-the-game T-Mobile commercial tune usage—it was not only a gift that kept on giving, but a rare example of a band’s arguably best record also being its most accessible and successful. That’s an especially rare event in the garage rock world.
So no blame should be laid if, as they finally get around to releasing this new album, it’s a kind of hang on the porch and maybe stroll around the cabin grounds kind of affair. While too many bands to mention—oh heck, let’s: Natural Child, Mean Jeans, Atlantic Thrills, Hunx, Shannon & the Clams, King Tuff, Acid Baby Jesus, Nightmare Boyz, Jacuzzi Boys, a few other bands with “Boys” in their name, a third of the Hardly Art roster and an eighth of Burger’s—have passed the Lips’ joint around the last few years, it’s all aggregated into a kind of sub-genre of its own. And that all bought the Black Lips some time. But it’s time once again for the messy masters to reclaim their perch.
The first single, Boys In The Woods, dropped a few weeks ago. It’s a solid, sinister stroll through a swamp of Southern rock rambling, with trumpets sliding in towards the end (these guys should use way more brass), and a seriously naughty video. But it’s a pip that they’ve started off the album with a peppier track, Drive-by Buddy. The opening lines of this Last Train To Snarksville lay out the somewhat contented mindset these fellas may be in: “Well brother what’s the matter?/Do you hate the life you chose?/But it’s all good/We’re hanging on a broken T-bird hood.”
Was also good to hear that their desire (real or ha ha) to get Phil Spector to produce this one came to no fruition, as that’s the worn route most of those aforementioned Lips-ophiles have followed, that faux “Wall of Sound,” reverb-drenched jive. At this juncture, and given that this is a darker hued piece, working with Dap-Kings music director Tommy Brenneck and Patrick Carney (the giddier half of the Black Keys) were perfect choices to distill the backyard hooch brewing vibe of Underneath The Rainbow. But then they went and got Grammy winner Jimmy Douglass (Justin Timberlake, Snoop Dogg, Björk) to mix the whole deal, so the inspiring “We are all in the gutter, some of us are looking at the stars” maxim once again applies.
Each tune is catchy in its way, though it’s not always the immediate, singalong popcorn machine of their latter releases. Meaning, Funny isn’t a particularly funny song, with its glammy, slap-backed snare leading a midnight can-kick down a dusty road, as a synth chirps like street lamps briefly exposing looming trouble. Dandelion Dust is another buzzed-beat glam-stab. Dorner Party is perky fuzz-wave, like if the Hives were from Missouri. Do the Vibrate is another mission statement wired in from Cramps HQ: “Rock and roll don’t mess around.” And the excellent Dog Years closes the trip, as its storytelling sneering, back-up “woo-ooo”s and shimmering riff bring to mushy mind none other than Death of Samantha’s sham-fisted slashing of Roxy Music. Within what the Black Lips claim is the their most rootsy release are sly, glam-tastic details dished out with a sometimes laggard energy. It makes for an album that digs in deeper with each listen, like cool new boots trudging through mud.
After concocting one of the most consistently fruitful careers of any band tagged “rock’n’roll” in the last 15 years, these bros have earned the chance to settle into a groove. They’ve never slacked on touring, dumped out lazy videos, or failed to collaborate with anything but interesting wackos, and always come around with slabs of strong songs year after year, and this is another. The cover art, featuring famed photog Mick Rock’s simmering, crimson-flushed portrait, couldn’t be simpler graphically, though the band is staring serious, radiating. For all the tiring tours, band member relocations, and their influence arc having jumped the shark, the Black Lips continue to be the Black Lips.