Sunday, December 4, 2011

Scaling the Garage-Punk Mountain (Black Lips CD Review) by Alison Ross

I really thought the BL could never top the exquisite Let it Bloom...and they haven't, actually. But they come damn near close on their latest, Arabia Mountain. The album is practically a perfect meshing of hook-laden retro-pop and garagey grit, and I declare it the best local album I have heard this year. Yes, better than The Coathanger's new one, or Deerhunter's latest, and it really pains me to say that, because recently I have favored both of those bands over the Black Lips. But I am an honest sort, and always aim to give credit where it is due.

Where Let It Bloom was all about the abrasion of punk being channelled through and tempered by the more sprightly sounds of the 60s, Arabia Mountain almost eschews the punk ethos altogether. There is still the rowdy rawness that BL have become renowned for, but it's audibly restrained. And that vibe is apparent on some songs more than others; clearly the BL covet an easy equilibrium between boisterousness and bouyancy.

The sound here is familiar, as ever - it's not like the BL will ever be anything other than a garage band - and yet the production more spirited than previous efforts. This is because BL have employed producer Mark Ronson of Amy Winehouse fame, who excels in summoning nostalgic noises out of musicians who instinctively lean in that direction. Just as Amy Winehouse revived the ghost of 50s and 60s girl groups and wedded those vibes to jazz and R and B, so the BL awaken the angels and demons of motown and 60s rock and roll to craft a semblance that nonethless is very genuinely realized.

The albums intervening Let it Bloom and Arabia Mountain, Good Bad Not Ugly and 200 Million Thousand, boasted considerable charms, to be sure, but neither were as solidly cohesive as these more triumphant ones. Good Bad Not Ugly has one of the strongest BL songs, in my estimation - Cold Hands, with its searing surfy guitar solo - but the album is otherwise asymmetrical, with almost more mediocre than mesmerizing material. Some of the band's stabs at humor on that album, too, are just juvenile and fall humiliatingly flat, as on the Native American cataloguing song and the mock-country tune. And while 200 Million Thousand featured some interesting forays into doomy bluesy dirges and even rap, it otherwise felt mired in its own sludgey sounds.

At any time on Arabia Mountain, you can hear loud whispers of the Beach Boys, or the Yardbirds, or the Byrds, or the Velvet Underground, or the Sonics - or any number of motown musicians. And hell, even earlier rockabilly influences can be discerned.

And yet this is not to say that the songs sound dully derivative. Sure, the BL derive their persona from the past, and they certainly are not radically reinventing the template. And a lot of the time they really do sound like they did actually record their music in the 60s.

But there is something refreshingly real about the BL; it's not slick garage rock like the Strokes, or an off-kliter take on the genre like the White Stripes, or a more packaged version like the Hives. It's a faithful facsimile of rock and roll and rhythm and blues when they were still at their nascent stages, and yet spit-smeared with a bit of punk's grease and grime.

Of course, Let it Bloom excels in this arena whereas Arabia Mountain is merely very successful - but it's heartening that the BL are capable of locating deeper and more dynamic dimensions to their musical moods.

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