Detractors will tell you Black Lips’ stage show and persona is all an act. And they’re right. Using your penis to play your guitar, urinating in your own mouth onstage, spitting in the air and trying to catch it, and having a tenuous grasp on sobriety virtually all the time: Those things hid Black Lips’ songwriting deficiencies and got their name circulating when they were, well, pretty dreadful.
But something interesting happened on the way to punk-rock obscurity for the Atlanta foursome. They developed the ability to craft near-perfect garage rock pastiche. It began to appear in fits and starts on the band’s third album, Let It Bloom, and they had it down by their fifth LP, 2007’s Good Bad Not Evil. The band’s bleary-eyed sixth album (their fifth studio album), 200 Million Thousand, proves that it wasn’t a fluke. It expands on Good Bad Not Evil’s Nuggets pilfering, but it’s more self-assured and more cohesive (at least for a Black Lips album).
The major change between Good Bad Not Evil and 200 Million is the recommitment to big, sloppy guitar riffs. After Good Bad sagged with a few middling country experimentations, 200 Million Thousand opens with singer/guitarist Cole Alexander asking if they’re rolling on “Take My Heart,” and continues with one of the most pummeling riffs the Lips have recorded in a catalog full of them. “Again & Again” sways with the collective tension of two distorted guitars, one of which breaks off into raging tangents. Rollicking surf guitars provide acceleration that is attributed to a Plymouth Barracuda in the sweet love song to being high that is “Drugs,” and late highlight “Body Combat” drips with the menace of earlier Black Lips singles while remaining dialed down with a meandering riff and high-note solo.
But this is still a Black Lips record, full of brash songs that could never be pulled off, or even thought of, by more serious bands. That brashness gives us a Grindhouse soundtrack cut (“Trapped in a Basement”), a Western shoot-em-up fantasy that taunts “you can’t be the Jack Johnson of today, big black baby Jesus on the way” (the not-even-joking “Big Black Baby Jesus of Today”) and an ode to bro love (“I’ll Be With You”).
No track highlights the looseness of the Lips better than the Jonestown Massacre suicide tape-sampling “The Drop I Hold,” which features Alexander rapping about blowing your ass away, Black-Lips.com and Islam, before making sounds like gun shots for the last minute. “The Drop I Hold” could be crushed under its faux self-seriousness, but it somehow makes sense in Black Lips world — fitting somewhere between goofy curio and semi-decent genre experimentation.
200 Million Thousand has more hooks and is better top-to-bottom than any previous Black Lips effort. The band has finally (and fitfully) outgrown the necessity of playing instruments with genitals and using bodily fluids as shock and awe set pieces. But there’s no way Black Lips are ever going to be one of those bands that “grows up” and walks out onstage without saying a word and stands still while playing all their songs. They don’t have that in them. But they seem to be acknowledging that it can’t last forever. On the sublime “Starting Over” they decide they need to “stop acting stupid,” “stop boozing” and “quit losing.” But instead of starting over, they decide to drink another beer, and everything is fine. And for now, that’s good enough.