Black Lips surprises with impressive, playful new album

The Black Lips’ most recent album ‘Underneath the Rainbow’ delivers fun, original sounds. Photo courtesy of newnoisemagazine.com
The Black Lips’ most recent album ‘Underneath the Rainbow’ delivers fun, original sounds. Photo courtesy of newnoisemagazine.com

My first exposure to Black Lips was at a live concert. They were playing after one of my heartthrob bands, Deerhunter. Seconds into the concert, many members of the audience had raised their beer cans high and were shaking liquid all over the crowd. Only after I had already stormed out of the concert in disgust and started my drive home, did I realize that the liquid was not beer. These fans had refilled their cans with water for the expressed purpose of sloshing the crowd. These fans were definitely raucous, but their revelry was premeditated.

Six months later, through my pizza delivery job, I found myself spending an enormous amount of time driving and listening to the local college radio station. Black Lips had just released their album Arabia Mountain and two singles from it were on heavy rotation. “Modern Art” and “Bicentennial Man” have a production style that is initially reminiscent of garage punk acts like Ty Segall, but are just a little too refined and far too catchy to fall into the same category. When I finally connected the songs with their creators, I understood that these songs I had been screaming along with in the car were in fact by the same band that had left me wet and grumpy six months earlier.

This was a problem. I had planned on holding a grudge forever. But these songs were great! So I gave in and let myself keep enjoying it.

Now Black Lips is back with Under the Rainbow. The opener, “Drive-By Buddy,” effectively uses overdubbed vocals to accomplish the band’s trademark sing-along quality. The album establishes its playfulness with the insertion of a poop joke in first 20 seconds. Most important, the big twang of the central guitar firmly asserts that Black Lips is a Southern band.

It’s not until the second track, “Smiling,” that Under the Rainbow sets itself apart from Black Lips’ previous work. The vocals do not have the lo-fi affectation that has defined the band’s production style.  The song possesses an air of sincerity, highlighted by the contrast with the rest of the album and their work in general. The vocals are so striking that the bathroom humor in the first 20 seconds flew right past me until I had given the song quite a few more listens.

When a band has such a defined lo-fi aesthetic, it is unsettling to see them break away from it. When Guided by Voices and Best Coast moved away from lo-fi, their music became much less distinctive and interesting. Black Lips’ foray into a cleaner sound is only one aspect of one song. They are willing to experiment without fully abandoning the style that is a part of  the band’s particular identity. Black Lips takes their unique brand of psychedelic rock and plays with it in subtle ways to make an album that feels familiar without feeling stale. Much like the water throwers at their concert, Black Lips comes off as wild and perhaps uncontrolled, but they really do know exactly what they are doing.

“Funny” and “Do the Vibrate” emphasize a heavy brooding guitar sound that also feels experimental for the band. This is not Arabia Mountain, where every song sounds like it could be radio single (although a lot of them still could be). Under the Rainbow moves more into country/roots rock territory and works really well to set them apart from other fast paced lo-fi acts. This is not a genre shift for Black Lips; it is a full realization of a style that has been present for years in their music.

At just over 34 minutes, Under the Rainbow is a relatively short listen. It a great bundle of fun to get you pumped up in the morning before class. If it wasn’t for that radio station, I probably would have written Black Lips off forever after the unfortunate water-throwing incident at their concert. But by turning off my iPod and letting the DJ choose for me, my mind was opened to a great band that continues to impress and surprise.