Lately, it seems every new record is a “maturation.” “They’re growing up,” the music monoculture assures us. “They’re getting introspective.” They said it about Los Campesinos! last year, and now they’re saying it about Real Estate. But it seems like they’ve always been saying it about Black Lips, or at least since 2007’s Good Bad Not Evil, when the band stepped out of the basement and into the garage. How, exactly, have they matured, though? Yeah, you’re probably not going to get puked on anymore if you go to their live shows. Nobody’s going to be pissing in each other’s mouths (onstage, at least). But the music? Half, if not most, of the songs on this new LP would be right at home on Good Bad Not Evil and, dare I say, every album before it, all the way back to their 2003 debut. Because no matter who’s producing, be it Mark Ronson on 2011’s enjoyable Arabia Mountain or the Black Keys’ Patrick Carney on this latest go-around, the Lips are always going to sound like the Lips. And that’s a good thing. If you see them on their current tour, you’ll hear Cole Alexander beg you to “suck some milk from my titties!” Fuck maturing. This shit rocks.
The above lyric, par for the course in a Lips song, emerges from the squinty synth line that underscores “Funny”, the band’s biggest detour from their tried and true roots punk roots. Alexander calls it their attempt at “having more of a commercial sound,” but fear not, purists, this is no Reflektor. The song’s anthemic chorus should prove a clap-happy respite from the inevitable mosh pit overload afflicting any Black Lips concertgoer. Alexander himself almost sounds ashamed of it, dubbing the synth “a fluke,” but such a confession simply confirms what everyone knows by now: The Black Lips play dirty rock ‘n’ roll, and that ain’t gonna change. Ronson added a certain slickness to 2011’s Arabia Mountain, sure, but Underneath the Rainbow sounds like it was recorded behind chainlink, and it’s all the better for it.
Chalk some of that up to Carney, whose fingerprints are all over lead single “Boys in the Wood”, a drunken, bluesy chant about backwoods boozing that marries the lyrical grime of Leadbelly with the accessibility of early Black Keys. The song also serves as a sobering counterpoint to cheeky songs like “Drive-By Buddy” and “Smiling”, both of which revel in the sunbaked tomfoolery of youth. Lyrically, Black Lips have always been as concerned with consequences as they’ve been with troublemaking, and the boys in the wood are simply grown-up versions of those rabblerousers; they haven’t grown up, just become a little more sad and a lot more dangerous.
But it’s not all dusty beer bottles and broken T-Bird hoods. “Make You Mine”, possibly the record’s biggest throwback to ’60s bubblegum, is downright saccharine in its sentiment, with an infectiously bubbly bass line to boot. Traces of the Stones can be heard among the lilting whistles of “I Don’t Wanna Go Home”, and “Waiting” echoes the Yardbirds with its driving, stomp-friendly melody. “Do the Vibrate”, a sneering track decrying smartphone dependence, sonically recalls Incesticide, Nirvana’s famously grimy collection of B-sides.
Of course, these are the same musical touchstones you’ll hear on any Black Lips record, and that proves to be both blessing and curse. They wear the influences well, and their own diverse interpretation of ’60s garage and psychedelia remains refreshing seven LPs into their incredible career. But the band also has a tendency to overstuff their records, with several tracks sinking into a quicksand of feedback. Songs like “Dorner Party”, “Dandelion Dust”, and “Dog Years” have yet to make an impact after multiple listens, dwarfed by poppier, more polished tracks like “Smiling” and “Boys in the Wood”. That said, Underneath the Rainbow clocks in at 12 tracks, unlike Arabia Mountain’s punishing 16. Leaner does mean meaner, and with the Black lips, mean is best.
“Well, brother, what’s the matter/ Do you hate the life you chose?” Alexander asks at the top of “Drive-By Buddy”. There’s a smirking confidence to his delivery, because the Lips don’t. They’re one of the most consistent bands in rock, and they’re doing exactly what they were meant to do. Underneath the Rainbow is just one more example of that.
Essential Tracks: “Make You Mine”, “Smiling”, and “Boys in the Wood”