Release Date: Mar 18, 2014
Record label: Vice
Genre(s): Pop/Rock, Alternative/Indie Rock, Garage Punk, Garage Rock Revival
With their seventh album, the Black Lips once again assert their place at the forefront of garage-rock. All the familiar signifiers from their best work can be heard here: the Phil Spector sheen, the participatory handclaps, the happy-go-lucky whistling. “Waiting” is cut from the same cloth as raucous party jams like “Raw Meat” and “New Direction” from 2011’s Arabia Mountain.
In the 15-plus years Black Lips have been together, the Atlanta four-piece have encountered their fair share of sex, drugs, and rock’n’roll. They were chased out of India by police in 2009 for getting naked and making out onstage, and toured their rambunctious songs sound the Middle East in 2012 – introducing live rock’n’roll to audiences who’d never seen anything like it before. They’ve crammed the essence of those experiences into this seventh album, its 12 songs capturing their reckless, politically apolitical, disposition.
Atlanta's Black Lips were notorious in their early days for on-stage vomiting and nudity, although they have now quietly clocked up seven albums which fall somewhere between a celebration and pastiche of garagey rock. Opener Drive-By Buddy applies the electric twang of the 1966 Rolling Stones to a tune similar to the Monkees' Last Train to Clarksville. Smiling could have come straight from the Strokes' debut and elsewhere they effortlessly flick through a mythical mail-order catalogue of everything from 60s swamp to 70s glam.
The irrepressible spirit of Black Lips has always been difficult to contain or capture in the studio. Their untamed live show and the riotous stage antics that make their performances so memorable don’t necessarily translate that well to their recordings, which have merely contained fragmentary glimpses of the fierce effervescent appeal of the Atlanta quartet. On their seventh full-length, Underneath the Rainbow, Black Lips ditched Mark Ronson’s over-polished sheen which gave 2011?s Arabia Mountain a vibrant modernity, in favor of the gritty garage – but arena ready – rock of The Black Keys’ Patrick Carney and the ambitious sonic tendencies of Budos Band’s Tommy Brenneck, who both split the production duties this time around.
Few would consider the Black Lips’ career in music a disappointment. The band has survived more than a decade, seen all the members make it to their 30s intact and continued to draw decent crowds and attention when it releases an album. In a few days, they will headline Burgerama for the second straight year, leading a charge of bands 10 years their junior whose primary goal should be to surpass the Black Lips in both chops and success.
For a band that burst on to the live circuit with such a wild reputation that it resulted in a fair few venue bans, it comes as a surprise to hear Atlanta’s Black Lips‘ plans for both the release of seventh studio album Underneath The Rainbow and the subsequent tour. A ‘scented’ cassette version (yes, they still exist) is due for release and the band would appear to have been ‘scent’ crazy, with fans due to have their nasal senses as well as their auditory nerves massaged, as throughout the shows a number of smellies will be released upon the audience. These are due to include whiffs of denim, cedar and, erm, semen (“after eating many, many plums”, apparently).
Lately, it seems every new record is a “maturation.” “They’re growing up,” the music monoculture assures us. “They’re getting introspective.” They said it about Los Campesinos! last year, and now they’re saying it about Real Estate. But it seems like they’ve always been saying it about Black Lips, or at least since 2007’s Good Bad Not Evil, when the band stepped out of the basement and into the garage.
Black Lips defined themselves early on with riveting music that breathed new life into garage rock. So let’s just get this out of the way: 2005’s Let It Bloom is still their best album. That’s not meant as a slight to their later work, but rather an acknowledgement of just how thrilling the early, ragged material could be: the way they screamed just after the intro of “Not a Problem”; their hypnotizing, fluid cover of Jacques Dutronc’s “Hippie, Hippie, Hoorah”; the swooning, filth-caked ballad “Dirty Hands”.
These Georgia garage guys are a dozen years into their recording career – a neat trick, given that their biggest role models are slop-bucket Sixties greaser-punk obscurities who tended to disappear after a regional 45 or two. By now the Lips have made peace with modern-day production techniques, but the 12 licketysplit songs on their seventh studio album still feel righteously ragged, if not downright drunk. They're pretty cheerful, too – even when cops in "Smiling" or teachers in "Waiting" make growing up difficult.
The producer’s role in pop is as potent now as it was in the 60s, but in rock music – unmistakeably what The Black Lips make – it’s a little more ambiguous. Their first album since 2011, Underneath The Rainbow finds the group working with a triumvirate of the buggers, including a Black Key and a Dap-King. Add to this the fact their vocals are shared three ways and you get a mix of early Stones, something like B-52s at their most rampant, and a woozy, modern take on Dead Kennedys.
With their 2011 album ‘Arabia Mountain’, Black Lips looked to be transferring their grubby mitts of a take on garage rock to chart territory. Recruiting Mark Ronson as producer was one thing, simplifying their balls to the wall rock’n’roll another altogether. It worked in one sense - it was a great record, simple as that - but it didn’t win them a flock of new fans as expected.
Ramshackle seems to be a pretty good adjective for the rock music released this year. There was the five seconds till the end of the world insanity of Silver Mt. Zion’s Fuck Off Get Free We Pour Light on Everything, the Men’s love letter to classic rock in Tomorrow’s Hits and now, the most off the rails of them all, Black Lips’ Underneath the Rainbow.
Whether it's pissing in each other's mouths or vomiting on stage, the Black Lips have always lacked focus, but that was part of the charm with the Atlanta quartet — you were never quite sure what you were going to get. That's why it's so painful to admit that while Underneath the Rainbow — that band's sixth studio LP — may be their most mature work to date, it is also their most boring. Coming off of 2011's critically acclaimed Arabia Mountain, it appears the good ol' boys may have been unhappy with producer Mark Ronson's overly polished (at least by their standards) sound, choosing to join forces with the Black Keys' Patrick Carney, Charles Bradley main man Thomas Brenneck and longtime collaborator Ed Rawls to dirty up the recordings.
After working with Mark Ronson on their previous album, Arabia Mountain, and successfully replacing the raunchy G-punk noise they were known for with a punchier, more accessible approach, the Black Lips turned to producers Patrick Carney of the Black Keys and Dap-Kings member Tommy Brenneck to helm their 2014 record, Underneath the Rainbow. Not surprisingly, the record marks another giant step toward respectability, with the rest of the gunk stripped away in the name of fidelity. It would be nice to say that this renovation allowed the songs some room to breath and as a result the band sounds better than ever.
This being Black Lips' seventh full-length record, it’d probably be a bit daft to expect anything particularly ground-breaking from the Atlanta quartet at this point. What I would be looking for, though, is some of the crackle and fizz that's been their calling card since forming back in 1999; a little of the energy that buzzed through the excellent Good Bad Not Evil, for instance, and some of the punk attitude that’s permeated most of their recorded output to date. Underneath the Rainbow is the band's first new record in three years, although for some reason it feels like it’s been longer; last set Arabia Mountain was, for the most part, the sound of the band treading water.
It can be confusing underneath the rainbow, as evidenced by Black Lips' scattershot Southern-influenced seventh album. At first, the Atlanta garage rock quartet seem to pick up where they left off after collaborating with mega-producer Mark Ronson on 2011's Arabia Mountain. Drive By Buddy, Smiling and Make You Mine are a trio of driving songs full of boyish snottiness, harmonies and handclaps.
Black Lips Underneath the Rainbow (Vice) With 2011's Arabia Mountain, Black Lips signaled the second phase of their decade-long career, tightening up their shambolic garage sound with producer Mark Ronson. The Atlanta quartet's latest keeps that focus, but returns to more raucous roots. Backed by Budos Band and Dap Kings' Tom Brenneck, and produced by the Black Keys' Patrick Carney, the band somehow remains degenerately disheveled and brilliantly bombastic in a way that belies their tightness.
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.
It’s telling that “Drive-By Buddy,” the first song on Black Lips’ seventh album Underneath The Rainbow, bears a strong resemblance to The Monkees’ debut single, “Last Train To Clarksville.” If the past decade has taught the world anything, it’s that Black Lips is a band that knows how to navigate the tricky pathways between play-acting and pastiche. That The Monkees did the exact same thing with its influences only heightens the profound sense of make-believe at the heart of Rainbow’s goofy-ass garage-pop. As always with Black Lips, “garage-pop” encompasses a lot—and on Rainbow, a full spectrum of tin can treble and boyish slovenliness is smeared across an otherwise typical batch of tunes.
Even with almost a decade and a half under their belt, Black Lips still have that youthful glint in their eyes, continuing to shell out high-energy gut-punches about the seedy corners of life. The thing that has remained the same over their eight album career is that they get in and out fast, with most of the Atlanta-based four piece’s songs clocking in at under three minutes, giving them the ability to jump from idea to idea, which keeps their freewheeling antics in full motion. What has changed throughout time is instrumental prowess: in the early 2000s they seemed to rely on the barebones basics of punk to stay afloat, but, on their last few albums — and especially here — they’ve roamed, pushing themselves in different directions, incorporating swampy blues, ‘50s rockabilly and various other branches from the tree of rock n roll.
In 2007, down a side road near Covent Garden, I saw Black Lips play in the old Rough Trade shop. The band were launching their 'It's A Problem, No, It's Not A Problem To Me!' single, and they still very much had the rough and ready, scrappy style of their earliest days despite the more polished Good Bad Not Evil being released a week or two later. The quartet spent the late afternoon set rattling through old and new songs, spitting into the air and climbing speaker stacks into impossibly squashed, guitar-wielding Quasimodo positions.