By Eleni P. Austin
If you had to describe the Black Lips sound in one word, it is would have to be “shambolic.” The Atlanta, Georgia band has been around almost 15 years, but they still sound like teenage neophytes, thrashing about in their parents’ garage.
Cole Alexander (lead vocals, guitar and harmonica), and Jared Swilley (bass) started playing music together back in Junior High. First as the Renegades, then in the Re-Runs they met lead guitarist Ben Eberbaugh. Drummer Joe Bradley graduated high school early, but he abandoned his college studies and signed on in 2000. Thus, Black Lips were born.
Black Lips early shows were so chaotic and outrageous that the quartet got banned from quite a few clubs. But their antics drew some interest from Greg Shaw, owner of Bomp! Records.
Bomp! started as a fanzine that Shaw created in the early ‘70s. Initially, it featured prominent Rock writers like Lester Bangs, Greil Marcus and Richard Meltzer. It became a record label in 1974, releasing music from Punk progenitors like the Weirdos, The Modern Lovers, The Pandoras and the Flamin’ Groovies.
Shaw’s enthusiasm for Psychedelia and Power Pop was contagious. Although his passion never translated into million-selling records, receiving his imprimatur was an important rite of passage. (Greg Shaw passed away in 2004).
Black Lips signed with Bomp! and recorded their self-titled debut in 2002. Sadly, tragedy struck on the eve of the album’s release, lead guitarist Ben Eberbaugh was killed in a freak auto accident. His death occurred days before the band was to start their first tour. Believing Eberbaugh would have wanted them to continue, the band soldiered on, touring as a three-piece.
By the time Black Lips were ready to record their sophomore effort, We Did Not Know The Forrest Spirit MadeThe Flowers Grow, they enlisted the services of guitarist Jack Hines. By their third release, Let It Bloom, the band had found Eberbaugh’s permanent replacement, guitarist Ian St. Pe.
In 2007, the band switched to Vice Records. Ever prolific, in the space of two years they released three more records, Los Valientes Del Nuevo, Good Bad Not Evil and 200 Million Thousand.
In 2011, the band hooked up with producer Mark Ronson. Although he is best known for producing British chanteuse Amy Winehouse, Ronson made his bones recording everyone from Lily Allen to Ol’ Dirty Bastard to Duran Duran.
For the band’s seventh album, Arabia Mountain, Ronson didn’t alter Black Lips sound, he just streamlined the production. Now their rickety racket was more accessible.
Black Lips are back with their eighth effort, Underneath The Rainbow. This time, production chores are almost evenly divided between Patrick Carney and Thomas Brenneck. Carney is best known as drummer for the Black Keys. Brenneck is part of the Brooklyn Afro-Soul collective, Budos Band.
The album blasts off with the Rockabilly kick of “Drive By Buddy.” The skeleton of the melody echoes Bob Dylan’s epochal “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” and “Maggie’s Farm, as well as the Monkees’ “Your Auntie Grizelda.” Weaving in and out of the mix are tumbling drums, chicken-scratch guitar and a ringing alarm clock!
Three songs here, “Smiling,” “Make You Mine” and “Waiting” owe a cosmic debt to the Replacements, the Clash and the Ramones, respectively.
The ramshackle melody of “Smiling” recalls the Replacements’ “Kiss Me On The Bus.” Lopsided drums and sunburst guitar riffs underscore this shaggy dog account of Jared Swilley’s night in jail. Neither contrite or repentant, he just wants out… “Come on Mom, bail me out/Don’t act too concerned.”
The pummeling martial cadence that opens “Make You Mine” mirrors the Clash’s “Career Opportunites.” Stun-gun guitar fills snake through the fractious melody. The lyrics just want a little romantic reassurance…”I need a little lovin,’ tell me everything will be alright.”
“Waiting,” is anchored by a loping “Hey Ho, Let’s Go” rhythm, perfect for this snapshot of teenage rebellion.. “Sitting in the classroom, waiting for the teacher’s hand, to lead us in the pledge of allegiance make us understand/But we’d rather kick the legs out of the chair and watch them fall, cause there’s no more time for her to make the call.”
Psychobilly is a genre of music that blends myriad styles: Punk, Rockabilly, Surf, with accents of Sci-Fi and Goth. The Cramps pioneered the sound in the 70s. Black Lips pick up the torch on three tracks, “Dorner Party,” “Boys In The Wood” and “Do The Vibrate.”
“Dorner Party” is powered by Punk-tastic buzz saw riffs and a boomerang backbeat. Grinding, tilt-a-whirl guitar riffs punctuate each verse on “Boys In The Wood.” The instrumentation is peppered by the Budos Band horn section. The mood, sepulchral and Southern Gothic, feels apropos.
Finally, “Do The Vibrate” is comically spook-tacular. Swirling psychedelic guitars collide with kaleidoscopic keys. Although the vocals feel menacing, the lyrics are really just an instruction manual for a (non-existent) dance craze… “Put your phone in your pocket, set it on vibrate/Do the Vibrate!”
Other interesting tracks include the smart-ass sing-a-long, “Justice After All” and the Bo-Diddly jangle of “I Don’t Want To Go Home.” Both “Funny” and “Dandelion Dust” offer up gangly Glam-Rock swagger.
The album closes with the withering kiss off of “Dog Years.” A kinetic drum pattern and sinewy guitar chords cushion a verbose and punctilious break-up rant that begins with “I love you, but your heart is made of gristle.”