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Music Review: Black Lips – Arabia Mountain

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In the single “Modern Art,” bassist for the Black Lips, Jared Swilley, sings over a fuzzed out guitar: “K-hole at the Dalí/Seeing the unknown/Well it might have been a molly/‘Cause my mind’s being blown. Two things are clear about this band: 1) These hooligans quaff enough drugs that make Charlie Sheen look like he’s been huffing Elmer’s glue out of a brown bag. 2) Its music sounds just like they are: debauched, offensive and slightly criminal, all of which translates into its most recent vinyl pressing.

Black Lips - Arabia MountainFamed for its notorious stage antics, such as making out with each other, flinging piss and whipping out their peters as well as their (legally questionable) lifestyle choices, the boys have cleaned up their act for its latest release, Arabia Mountain, on Vice Records. Well, sort of.

Produced by the band with the help of Mark Ronson and Deerhunter’s Lockett Pundt, the band’s sixth studio efforts veers towards a catchier, cleaner and somewhat sobered up sound from past releases, putting out song after song of hip-shaking garage goodness.

The album kicks off with “Family Tree,” a ditty featuring circus-like motif before switching into a cowpoke westernized groove with reverberating guitars before reverting to the furious yelping of its lead melody. Such a raucous becomes the band’s signature fast-ride through its amalgamation of tracks and central medium for communicating their psychedelic riffs that will boogie-woogie on everybody’s mind and spine. The rest of the album is a merry coalescence of machine-gun downstroke strumming punk guitar, some mild country chords and non-stop danceable garage beats.

Stripping it down to the skivvies, the Black Lips thrust rock n’ roll into the middle of the cold night and start playing grab-ass for around 42 minutes. “Noc-A-Homa,” an elegy for the Atlanta Braves’ slightly un-PC mascot, is a hard hitting and sultry number about the insalubrious behavior of the hard-partying “tribe of one.” Good ol’ fashion hip-shaking music is what pours from the record, and lots of it.

Production has cleared up from the days of mind-warbling psychedelia of 200 Million Thousand. It would seem that Ronson, of ‘ol Dirty Bastard and Amy Winehouse production fame, is ill-fated to ill-suit the band’s rock n’ roll ideological agenda but his mixing touch does not compromise the ouvre. Effects such as fuzz and reverb make appearances but do not go rampant in the record, while the guitar/bass/drum ensemble does not deviate from the staple codes. Ian St. Pé’s guitar assumes the lead melody, while Cole Alexander’s keeps the rhythm, which are both backed by the low end of Jared Swilley’s slightly melodic bass playing and Joe Bradley’s percussion.

Though some crystal clear production is found in the album, as is “Spidey’s Curse,” a twee-pop-inspired shaker about almost-raped superheroes, the band’s lo-fi roots of Let It Bloom and Black Lips! are found in their New York Dolls-esque “Dumpster Dive.” Pundt’s contribution in “Bicentennial Man” reveals a subtle robotic tremolo on the vocals along with the driving rhythm upholding everything.

Orchestration, though not necessarily lush and full, does breach out and incorporates some interesting tidbits, including a theremin on “Modern Art” (courtesy of Sean Lennon), saxes on the irresponsibly alcoholic “Mad Dog” and opening track, as well as a whistling musical saw in the moronic Ramones-inspired track “Raw Meat.” Also, it’s unclear if the “human skull” played by Alexander was used for musical purposes or for plain ‘ol satanic rituals. The division of songwriting and singing labors between Alexander, Bradley and Swilley provides a satisfying sense of variety as well as a healthy plurality of voices.

The Lips’ sound and aesthetic in the record vacillates between feel good party anthems and drug-idolizing numbers; its main internal conflict, is its agon in a sort of way. The former sports such infectious grooves as their singles “Go Out and Get It,” the self-esteem boosting, self-help summer jingle with jangly arrangements, and “New Direction,” a driving surfy beat of sugary bubblegum leanings that’s a surefire floor-stomper. “Don’t Mess With My Baby” follows that same aesthetic with its Johnny Marr opening riffing juxtaposed in a Bo Diddley hand jive, pouting about how your baby keeps smoking all your dope.

The latter category is slightly more hermetic and darker, with tracks such as “Mr. Driver,” a stoned-out-of-my-mind cruise through dissonance and swaths of fuzzed out guitars that oscillate between the enigmatic lines, “I want to bleed on my squire” and the irreverent “My pecker’s long.” The sinister “The Lie,” perhaps the album’s choicest cut, is a gloom and doom number akin to a more nefarious psychedelic folk tradition, a Jefferson Airplane-meets-Black Sabbath affair, thanks to the haunting fretwork and chilling vocal lines, as well as freak out guitar mutilated solos. The album’s closer, “You Keep On Running” is a dirgy, swampy, slimy and reverb-caked march through a ghostly collection of hash haze, floating organs and phantasmal wailing.

At the core, the album cranks out 16 delectable nuggets of rock n’roll but most songs are just more of the same Lips-fare. They move towards a new direction with their slightly more enigmatic and polemic tracks but are at odds with their classic repertoire. It’s not to say most songs lack some indescribable kernel of pleasure. Au contraire, they’re solid compositions. What the group lacks in dexterous musicality. It more than make up for it with superb songwriting.

The Black Lips have shown with its latest release that they are mature enough to crank out a steady array of tracks that prove that they are as good as its stage antics. Not necessarily a work of staggering beauty and might, Arabia Mountain is definitely a rock n’ roll safari that will blast the bad bones off your body and keep you grooving ’til you turn black and blue. It’s not terribly complex, but it’s terribly fun, and that’s what rock n’ roll should be.

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About Enrique Olivares