Two years ago, Black Lips reached an impasse. The fickle world of music lovers spat them out in a violent fashion akin to how the band members themselves often do with their own saliva on stage. If their 2007 album “Good Bad Not Evil” won them legions of new fans, the follow-up two years later with “200 Million Thousand” had close to the opposite effect. It seemed as if they were destined to become victims of the dreaded hype cycle, once beloved but soon after abandoned. Part of the problem with that last album (their fifth) was how content it seemed to be staying the course. The lack of ambition and conscious choice to maintain the same fuzz-riddled lo-fi sound from their last few records reeked of uninspired madness. Essentially it was a “fuck you” to those that thought Black Lips would change their sound now that they’d found success. With that plan having backfired, the band’s next move would need to be smart not only if they wanted to reclaim what they’d lost, but save what they were in danger of losing, which was their record deal. That explains why their new album “Arabia Mountain”, coldly calculated though it may be, is exactly the thing that Black Lips needed to revive everything they’d worked so hard to gain up until that point in time.
If you want to call anybody a hero in working to give Black Lips the kick in the teeth needed to make the necessary sonic adjustments for “Arabia Mountain”, Mark Ronson is the guy to point the finger at. The guy has worked with tons of people, most notably plenty of pop stars, to which he’s added a certain sheen to their sound that more often than not comes off as over polished. Still, he knows how to pull back on those reins when it’s warranted, and in the case of Black Lips, it absolutely was. You can’t go from super lo-fi to super clean without doing some serious damage to your long-time fans that love that no frills aesthetic. Yet the pairing of the two entities wasn’t nearly as earth-shattering as one might believe. Dust off some of that poorly recorded fuzz and buried underneath you’ll find a bunch of guitar pop songs. That and a mutual respect for the classic sounds of the 60s ultimately proved to be the bond necessary to bring out the best in Black Lips. Cleaner but not overly polished, lighter with more of a smirk than a frown, supercharged, addictive and more wide-ranging than ever, this is the band upgrading to version 2.0. Ronson may have had a fair share to do with it, but this record is still distinctly Black Lips through and through. These dynamic songs didn’t write and compose themselves, though somebody did throw a nice coat of wax on top to reveal the diamonds hiding underneath.
Saxophones really spice up opening track “Family Tree”, bringing a little madcap retro spice to a track that’s not only energetic, but downright danceable. One can envision girls in go-go boots on multi-colored dance floors doing what might otherwise be lovingly referred to as “The Pulp Fiction” (peace signs across the eyes). The buzzy guitar on “Modern Art” is eerily reminiscent of The Beatles or The Yardbirds, but the light touches of xylophone help bring a more contemporary feel to what’s ultimately a song about taking the wrong kind of drugs and wandering around an art gallery. If only all bad trips were this good (and addictive). The acoustic guitars providing the assist on “Spidey’s Curse” are a great addition to the track, and something that would likely have gotten lost in the mud of poor production quality in the past. If you’ve seen enough episodes of the old cartoon version of “Scooby Doo”, you’ll feel a special kinship to “Mad Dog”, primarily because it feels like one of those songs they’d play during a lengthy chase sequence where the mystery solving team keeps running and hiding from the monster that’s after them. That association isn’t brought up by the title of the song either, it’s mere coincidence, and matching that 60s-era sound doesn’t hurt either. Continuing to pull from that direction, “Raw Meat” sounds like a long-lost Ramones gem and the opening to “The Lie” comes weirdly close to copying Zeppelin’s “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You” before taking a decidedly more psychedelic direction. And you’d be hard pressed to not think of The Rolling Stones when “Dumpster Dive” arrives, it apes that style oh so well. Even when their songs don’t recall specific and classic bands from the past, there’s plenty to get hooked on. “Go Out and Get It” and “New Direction” are hyper-catchy songs that will stay with you despite having so many other memorable highlights. It’s relatively easy to imagine massive crowds hearing songs like these when walking past the stage at a music festival and stopping in their tracks to keep listening.
Very legitimately, “Arabia Mountain” has suddenly become the piece de resistance for Black Lips. The winds have changed direction and now more than ever they’re on track to take over the world. They sound completely reinvigorated and more vital than ever. It’s amazing the creative spaces some artists will reach when the right sort of pressure is applied. Alternatively, “200 Million Thousand” is where an artist might go when the wrong sort of pressure is applied. When truly fighting for their livelihoods, these guys have stepped up and knocked one out in the best sort of way. Even completely ignoring the circumstances behind how they got to this point and judging this record as if it were some unknown band from Anywhere, USA, this is an album that is such a joy to listen to. Above all else, that’s the point: to have some fun, bounce around a bit, and go home tired but with melodies still running through your head. The only real issue “Arabia Mountain” has is with the sheer amount of music that’s on it. Clocking in at just over 40 minutes, it’s definitely not too long of an album, but there are probably a few too many tracks. A couple of the album’s 16 songs sound pretty similar and could have been cut without much of a problem. 12-14 songs would have been ideal, even if a 30 minute run time might have felt a little short. Quality over quantity, as the phrase goes. Other than that though, this is Black Lips operating at a level that nobody thought they could effectively reach, which is why “Arabia Mountain” is one of the most pleasant and best surprises of 2011 so far.