Sunday, June 21, 2009

The Luscious Lips Are Back in Black (Music Review) by Alison Ross

As I gushed in a review and a top 10 list in previous issues of The Cat, The Black Lips' Let it Bloom is an album that I enshrine as wickedly brilliant and one that I have been sure could never be bested by these scuzzy, wayward garage sloppers.

And so far, I have been proved correct: Good Bad Not Evil is scintillating in its way but certainly less coherent than Let it Bloom and also too conspiculously driven by commercial ambitions. There are some sizzling and smartly crafted tunes on the album, to be sure (I rank Cold Hands as one of their most masterful songs), but the album is encumbered by too many palpable concessions to sprightly pop moods, and the production only enables such overt commercialism. Let it Bloom is plenty poppy, but the production shrouds the songs in a smog of fuzz and distortion that evokes a delirious vintage-retro vibe, and also provides an audacious aural challenge for listeners, inviting endless return trips. But both albums, of course, revel in hooky tunes that abound in affectionate allusions to past musical styles (50s and 60s, mainly).

200 Million Thousand, the latest sloppy serving from The Lips, is actually better and more cohesive than Good Bad Not Evil, but it still cannot hope to triumph over the almost absurd ingenuity of Let it Bloom. But it comes closer than its immediate predecessor and manifests a heartening musical maturity nonetheless. It is the blunt antithesis of Good Bad Not Evil in terms of commercial aspirations, and the musical styles mimicked are even more wide-ranging than the previous two efforts. Hell, there is even a gangsta-esque rap song on the album... and it's surprisingly solid.

Of course, it's not fair to constantly compare albums and I do try to take each one on its own merits. But sometimes it's hard to evade such comparisons because if one album sets a high bar, then it naturally raises the expectations for the ensuing efforts.

The Black Lips' strength, of course, is in their paradoxical ability to weave simple yet sophisticated songs, that are at once bouyantly catchy, and yet intelligently intricate, and that tell tales of debauchery in a wildly humorous and ironically inoffensive way.

200 Million Thousand continues the theme of snot-nosed brats making stunningly savvy songs. Of course, the brats have aged a bit, and really, their juvenile on- and off-stage antics can be rather exasperating. Because in my eyes, they belie the brilliant music being offered up in sumptuous abundance.

Naturally, the Black Lips would not be who they are without yielding to some gimmickery and inanity - they do, indeed, boldly embody the teenage-boy ethos - but it's my fervent hope that as they mature as musicians, they will also find ways of expressing themselves that don't resort so readily to bratty rock star cliches. And in reality, they have already done this to some degree, as they no longer urinate in their own mouths and so on. For as funny as that is from one perspective, it's finally just a pathetic attention-getting tactic. But of course you already knew that.

So the new album - yeah. I would have to say that while it IS cohesive, it's also somewhat imbalanced. The cohesiveness comes from the overall feel of the record, but it's uneven in terms in the caliber of the songs. The songs cleave together well and do not offer any abrupt changes in tone. There are different moods, to be sure, but the songs all seem to be working toward one overriding mood - one that is defiantly mercurial. And stylistically, the songs are a swampy mixture of blues, sock-hop, country, rockabilly, rhythm and blues, motown, classic rock, and so on. And the production on this album is not that far removed from the production on Let it Bloom - i.e., scratchy textures prevail.

The songs that for me do not hold such a strong sway are the ones where bassist Jared Swilley sings. It's not that I don't appreciate that the Lips change up vocal duties - I do. Cole Alexander's boyish screech is endearing, to be sure, but it is nice to get respite from it once in a while. But Jared's voice betrays a grating nasally quality, and he conveys a flatly monotonous delivery. At the same time, his voice invokes the past in a way that Cole's cannot hope to, so perhaps that's its redeeming trait. After all, the Lips' aim is to recapture the glory of the 50s and 60s - and then smear it with the spit and mucus of punk rock.

The strongest songs on the album are the ones that don't merely mimic musical styles, but that actually give such styles new and flavorful dimensions. The song "Trapped in a Basement," for example, sounds like rip-off of "House of the Rising Sun" - maybe because essentially it is. Therefore, it's not that interesting, although the spooky background wails give it a certain flair. On the other hand, the song, Body Combat is an altogether creative, engrossing and vaguely country-fied "stomp."

Other album highlights include: Big Black Jesus of Today (the style and title are a bit reminiscent of the murky glory of a patented Tom Waits tune), Again and Again, Old Man, Elijah, Let it Grow, and the Stones-esque Starting Over. Indeed, The Black Lips at times boldly invoke the early days of the Rolling Stones.

After Good Bad Not Evil, I was not sure whether I would continue to be such a hardcore Black Lips fan. But I have come back around to them quite fervently after this album. For despite its lulls - and really, those are few and far between - its peaks are dizzying and delicious. Long live the Lips.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I have not read the review above, but anybody considering attending a live show should know that one of the most intriguing aspects of the craft of these "artistes" is that they routinely spray their audience with freshly harvested bodily fluids.