Black Lips - Arabia Mountain

by Al Brown Rating:7 Release Date:2011-06-13

Even though they've been around for 12 years, it's hard to take Black Lips seriously. Most of the time, in their live shows, songs and interviews, they come across less as a band, more a series of sixth-form in-jokes held together with a macho enthusiasm for excess. And yeah, you could say that I'm missing the point, that the Black Lips' perpetual flippancy is part of their attraction, but I love bands who walk the line between utter dedication and a healthy sense of their own ridiculousness. The Ramones, The Smiths, The New York Dolls all had it; Black Lips nail it occasionally, but most of the time theirs is a facile, sniggering-at-the-back approach which is hardly helped by their reliance on repetitive garage-rock dynamics. It's perhaps no surprise that they ended up in bed with that bastion of snark-journalism, Vice.

For the first time ever, the band employed a producer here - none other than Mark Ronson, and if you're first response to that was: "LOL! I bet he put horns on everyfink!" you would be mainly wrong, although there is some utterly filthy (and great) sounding sax on opener 'Family Tree', a rollicking, sinister tune that's tailor-made for soundtracking scenes of teenage degeneracy. Second single 'Modern Art' is a frantic garage-rock account of a ketamine-enhanced visit to the Dali museum. I don't know if the musical saw and girl-vocals on the chorus were Ronson's work but they add to the tripped-out, surfy feel.

As always, the band are at their best when they go for the pop jugular, and the highlight of this album is 'Spidey's Curse', a ridiculous lament to Spiderman ("Peter Parker/ don't let 'em mark ya") with a huge debt to Phil Spector and The Ramones. If ever a couplet just made a song it's this one: "It's your body/ no-one's body but yours anyway". Not everyone can evoke the eternal dilemma of the superhero, compelled by his powers to help those in need while longing for a normal life, as well as The Shangri-La's rape drama 'Past, Present and Future' and humankinds ontological struggle so neatly.

Mirroring their producer's awesome capacity for dilettantism, the middle section of the album strays a little too close to a bunch of very influential predecessors. 'Raw Meat' is a Ramones song in everything but name. 'Bone Marrow' cribs hard from The Beach Boys and 'Ça plane pour moi' by Plastique Bertrand. 'Time' and especially 'Dumpster Diving' are early Rolling Stones and the latter paraphrases Johnny Cash. Not that any of this is necessarily a bad thing, but with such exact levels of imitation on show, it's hard to engage with the songs as anything more than enjoyable pastiche. 'Don't Mess Up My Baby' is a much more satisfying retro-stomp: "You huffed all my Glade/ drank my Kool-Aid when your throat was dry" drawls whoever is singing (they sound the same, sorry), "You ate my Captain Crunch/ Chased the dragon, went to hide/ Now settle down and have my children/ 'Cos your brain is fried." That's the kind of swaying, filthy shit that the Lips excel at.

Overall, it is something of a triumph for the band and for Ronson, who I never would have guessed was capable of producing something so unfussy and unpolished. The band are still sniggering at the back, making out like they don't care about anything, least of all anything as uncool as putting effort into their music; but this is their most focused album yet, and it sacrifices none of the grit.

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