I was first introduced to the Black Lips by a cooler-than-thou New Yorker, as an impressionable under-graduate. In all honesty, the drawling proclaimer left more of a lasting impression than the proclaimed. Aside from a vague (dis)interest in their Jack-Ass style theatrics (spitting into each others mouths mid gig, puking/urinating on stage, playing their guitars with their penis’ and other such sophisticated delights), the Black Lips had left a relatively minor mark on my consciousness. I imagine, however, that this is about to change – “Arabia Mountain” is really rather good.
As one might expect from a Black Lips release, “Arabia Mountain” is self-consciously retro in its aesthetic. You can trace The Black Lips lineage with ease - from their garage rock roots to their lo-fi leaves (with a few doo-wop branches between the two). Accordingly the album opens with “Family Tree”, two and a half minutes of hip-shaking glory: tight drums, a discordant sax and an achingly affected vocal swagger. “Can I take you out / Out to the family tree?” asks the chorus. I defy you to resist the invitation.
“The Lie” marks the peak of their retro-active experimentations. An unsettling, descending riff nods to proto-punk pioneers The Monks, whilst the guitar sound is reminiscent of early Clapton (with the noodle dial muted to a level permissible in the 21st Century).
Mark Ronson’s relatively hands off approach to the production works wonderfully. He’s indulged their scuzzy sensibilities: but the quality is crisp and the arrangement accomplished. Deerhunter’s Lockett Pundt also makes a notable appearance as guest producer on two tracks, including “Bi-Centennial Man” – a foot-stomping standout, recorded on a six-track.
However “Arabia Mountain” is far from an exercise in vintage indulgence, the Black Lips are referencing the past without discounting the future. “Modern Art” – a Jeffrey Lewis-esque homage to visiting Art Galleries inebriated - comes complete with gleaming glock and indie infused loveliness in the vocal melody. Consequentially the key line “turn around, start it over let’s begin”, adopts a perhaps unintentional significance. Similarly the buoyant nostalgia of “New Direction” wouldn’t sound place out of place on a 555 compilation – and as those purveyors of the past appreciate, you have to move forward before you can look back.
“Arabia Mountain” is not a perfect album – the sixteen tracks would sit happily as twelve and it’s repetitive at times – but it’s infectiously enjoyable and ridiculously danceable (albeit on cider soaked stickiness). Furthermore the Black Lips have yet to entirely drop their controversial antics: they poisoned their producer whilst making “Arabia Mountain” and employed a human skull as an echo chamber. However the former was through consuming raw liver (whilst recording “Raw Meat”) and the latter (on “You Keep On Running”) is more eerie Hammer horror than truly unhinged. Sure, drugs and bodily functions still feature heavily in their subject matter but wider material is creeping in. They still allude to Jim Jones, but it is moving to the Town from the Massacre. I for one am glad. As they exceed the pre-requisite to the 27 Club, it seems fitting that the focus should shift to the music from the myths that surround it. It is pleasingly promising, The Black Lips are beginning to bear the fruits of their well-placed roots.