BLACK LIPS: ARABIA MOUNTAIN (2011)
1) Family Tree; 2) Modern Art; 3) Spidey's Curse; 4) Mad Dog; 5) Mr. Driver; 6) Bicentennial Man; 7) Go Out And Get It; 8) Raw Meat; 9) Bone Marrow; 10) The Lie; 11) Time; 12) Dumpster Dive; 13) New Direction; 14) Noc-A-Homa; 15) Don't Mess My Baby; 16) You Keep On Running.
Thank you, Mark Ronson, for helping to steer these guys away from lo-fi. On their last three studio albums, the Lips seem to have been wobbling back and forth, but Arabia Mountain is their cleanest-sounding record yet, and something tells me that, by this time, there is no going back. Especially since the result is one of their strongest efforts, second only to Good Bad Not Evil, and even then, just because it does not have as many sharply high points — but overall, it may actually be more consistent in terms of songwriting.
Songwriting and diversity, to be precise: the Lips now feel strong enough to tackle as many different styles as they can technically afford, with the only condition being that the styles all be sufficiently retro. Brutal aggressive garage, riff-based power-pop, Ramonesy punk, proto-Goth spookdom, drunken folk dances, guitar jangle, a bit of twist, a bit of glam — well, nothing too distant from the parts of each other, but different enough to give each song its own little face. And it's all CLEAN! You actually get to hear and enjoy the riffs, the brass lines, the vocal hooks — without having to pick out the miles of sludge, for no other reason than a hollow pretense at «authenticity» that this band's idols, fourty years ago, would have considered unprofessional.
Okay, so the songs are not very good, as usual: once a mediocre songwriter, always a mediocre songwriter unless your name is George Harrison and your best buds are a pair of you-know-whos. But they are amusing, curious, involving, and just plain nice to hear, even if most of them are still devoid of significance. ʽFamily Treeʼ, opening the album, is a case in point: fast, fun pop-rock à la early Merseybeat bands with a bit of noise and distortion thrown in — and all for the sake of backing up a chorus that they must have found verbally innovative ("Can I take you out, out to the family tree?"), but for no reason other than sheer absurdism. ʽModern Artʼ makes more sense — a song that is about absurdism and its effect on people, another rocker whose musical backbone is almost surprisingly normal for a song whose chorus goes "You turn around and you don't know where you've been / You look up at the glass dome and your head begins to spin".
Relative highlights (relative, because, as I have said, the album is generally quite even) include ʽMad Dogʼ, a brass-dominated anthem to backward messages and the temptations of shock-rock; the unusually grim-sarcastic ʽBicentennial Manʼ and its appropriation of the guitar jangle for hard rock purposes; the hilarious Ramones tribute ʽRaw Meatʼ that tastes like the Ramones, smells like the Ramones, and revs up like the Ramones (but did the Ramones ever have whistling in between verses?); and the album closer ʽYou Keep On Runningʼ, slower, longer, and more atmospheric than everything else — having started out in fun, fast, playful mode, the Lips decide to end things with something ghostly-spooky. As usual, they are semi-successful: the echoey guitars and whooshing and wheeing back vocals keep things modestly convincing, but we have heard all of it too many times before to allow ourselves to fall prostrate at the altar.
Arabia Mountain is probably as «solid» as these guys are ever going to get. Here, they are no longer a bunch of hooligan kids with good tastes in influences and bad tastes in producing their own records. Their decade-long career has finally turned them into matured professionals — and for me, it's a fact: if you do not know how to fish fabulous melodies out of thin air, there are but two ways to overcome that obstacle — go drive a truck or turn into a matured professional, no matter how much time and will it takes. The Black Lips proved themselves tenacious enough. I do not understand how it would be possible to love this music, which continues to embrace post-modernism in a post-post-modernist epoch at the expense of inspired melodies; but if they go on making albums like Arabia Mountain, each one will at least be an «event» worth savouring and discussing. Respectfully, a thumbs up.
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