BLACK LIPS: UNDERNEATH THE RAINBOW (2014)
1) Drive By Buddy; 2) Smiling; 3) Make You Mine; 4) Funny; 5) Dorner Party; 6) Justice After All; 7) Boys In The Wood; 8) Waiting; 9) Do The Vibrate; 10) I Don't Wanna Go Home; 11) Dandelion Dust; 12) Dog Years.
And here it is — why deny it? All these years, deep within their hearts, despite all the lo-fi pretense, despite all the «experimentalism», despite all the rebellious image issues, there was one simple thing that Black Lips really wanted to be: a cross between The Squires, The Swingin' Medallions, and a couple other bands prominently featured on Nuggets. This is the music they loved most of all, this is the music that they finally give all their hearts to on their eighth album, where about half of the songs sound exactly like mid-Sixties garage pop and the other half sound like a 21st century tribute to Sixties garage pop. Clean, though. Very clean.
Understandably, the album got some negative reviews. For those who miss the old days of lo-fi, Underneath The Rainbow is almost an insult, full of simple, faceless pop ditties that show little of the band's personality. They used to be unpredictable hooligans, and now they are making an album that is almost respectable — not to mention produced by Patrick Carney of The Black Keys at a time when The Black Keys themselves are threatened by a loss of face, with their last two albums decried as way too glossy and commercialized.
To a certain extent, this is true, but only if you really believe that the band's original schtick was truly as great as their fans proclaim. As far as I'm concerned, these guys had always been jesters — sometimes friendly, sometimes mean-spirited, but never to be taken too seriously, and from that angle of view, they certainly do not cease being jesters on Underneath The Rainbow. "As long as your butt's clean, it's all good", they sing on the first track, and that could very well pass as the overall motto of the album, and it is also well in line with similar mottos from many a similar band in the mid-Sixties. And what's wrong with that?
Now, of course, you have to keep in mind that this here reviewer has always favored pop over punk and melody over noise — in general — and this would make me predictably biased towards this kind of music over that kind of music. But, honestly, just as there are some punk-and-noise bands that seem to be born for this style of life, Black Lips, to me, sound like a band that has long wandered in search of a goal in life, and finally came into their own with Arabia Mountain, and now they are having a party of a lifetime with this new record. No, they seem to still be struggling a bit with songwriting, but at least now they seem to get a good grip on whatever it is that they are doing, and, above all else, this is nowhere near a loss of personality: on the contrary, they seem to have finally found what they were looking for.
Okay, so it is not a lot, what they were looking for. But it's fun! ʽDrive By Buddyʼ sounds like a long lost B-side to a Who single, with Joe Bradley pulling a Keith Moon and the guitar player laying on Townshend-style power chords a-plenty. ʽSmilingʼ is an equally fast folk-pop rocker where bass player Jared Swilley entertains us with an amicable story of his jailtime experience (if only he were a slightly better singer, the song would have had even more impact — then again, maybe the somewhat off-tone nasal bleat is more in line with the band's jester image). ʽMake You Mineʼ (produced by Tom Brenneck rather than Carney), set to a melody reminiscent of Lindsey Buckingham circa Tusk, is a charming clownish love declaration, perfectly fit for an evening serenade if your chosen one values a good sense of humor over generic sentimentality. And that's just the first three songs — and there is a little something to be said about just about every other one that follows.
Only one of the tunes sounds like some sort of anthemic generational statement, and no wonder that it is the one that bit me harder than the rest of them, since it shares its siren-like ringing guitar tone with the classic Squires number ʽGoing All The Wayʼ, one of the best songs to come out of the entire garage movement, as far as I'm concerned. The song in question is ʽWaitingʼ, and its chorus slogan, even if stated a bit clumsily ("I don't wanna wait, waiting for it, waiting for the change"), still sounds convincing — nostalgic, perhaps, and a little outdated in its fight-the-power cockiness, but perfectly capturing that «proud idealistic stance» of the days of yore. For a bunch of guys who used to confuse songwriting with binge drinking, nailing this feeling so well is one hell of an achievement, I'd say.
Sometimes they do get a little stuffy: ʽBoys In The Woodʼ is a slow, draggy blues-rocker with some potential of becoming an eerie swampy bogeyman of a tune, but the boys do not have the musical expertise to pull it off properly, and the end result is repetitive and boring (worst of all is the misuse of the brass section, most of it lost in the mix and missing the mark). But usually they are saved by the humor, the speed, and the chorus hooks, and sometimes Carney makes them sound like El Camino-era Black Keys (ʽDandelion Dustʼ), which does not hurt at all: glossy, but bass-heavy blues-rock can be fun if played in a lively manner.
On the whole, different as it is from early Black Lips, Underneath The Rainbow finds the band inspired and happy, and this, in turn, makes me inspired and happy, at least a little bit. Of course, there is some irony at work here — the old garage pop style that they worship so frantically used to be all about letting one's hair down and enjoying life without setting up formalistic barriers, and now, by imitating their idols so closely, Black Lips end up introducing such barriers. Thus, rather than renewed self-liberation, the album, like so many other Sixties' revival efforts of the new millennium, celebrates nostalgia. But then again, maybe we do need more of those celebrations nowadays — at the very least, I'll take efficient Sixties' nostalgia over ridiculous Eighties' nostalgia, so prominent these days as well, any time. And any album with ʽDrive By Buddyʼ and ʽWaitingʼ on it deserves at least a moderate thumbs up in my book.
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