It’s both a blessing and a curse when an artist’s personal reputation is so notorious that they are rarely spoken of, or written about, without some reference to a difficult personality, birthmark, etc. To a certain degree, this is the case with the Black Lips. But, at this point, it’s too reactionary to say the Lips are better known for their touring and onstage hijinks (file under: drunken, fist fights, urinary, other) than their particular brand of garage rock. They’re maturing with age like a fine wine — or more accurately, like a half-quaffed bottle of High Life left sitting on an amp.
On Arabia Mountain, producers Mark Ronson and Lockett Pundt (Deerhunter, Lotus Plaza) give the Black Lips the boarding school treatment, symbolically stuffing the precocious dudes into Little Lord Fauntleroy suits by making the songs a little glossier. The two prove exceptional producers for the Lips. In his work as Bradford Cox’s right hand man in Deerhunter, Pundt builds up Cox’s songs using plenty of dreamy effects. Ronson’s own work also tends toward excess (and excessively slick), but when given the chance to bring another artist’s point of view to life, he works some magic. He took Amy Winehouse from milquetoast modern jazz chanteuse to raunchy Spector Wall of Sound diva, and here, he’s helped the Black Lips explore and incorporate more robust instrumentation to complement the riffs and cocky vocals. The horn flourishes and riffs that pop up in almost every song don’t sound tacky or tacked-on — they really do seem like a natural extension of the Lips’ raucous garage rock. Ronson and Pundt had the good sense to not monkey with what works — Mountain still sounds like a Black Lips album, just a cleaner, grown-up version.
Arabia Mountain finds the Lips testing a lot of different approaches and takes on what “garage rock” means. There are interpretations of haunted, paranoia-inducing 1960s psychedelia (“You Keep On Running”), poppier numbers, and some full-on Brian Wilson aping (“Don’t Mess Up My Baby”). It’s a bit of a genre grab-bag, but they make it work. Lots of extra flourishes abound, taking the form of horns, synthesizers, and theremin, adding depth to what had heretofore been pretty straightforward guitar-centric garage rock. The baritone sax riff that kicks off “Mad Dog” gives it a radio single/dance floor feel, as does the swirling carnival horn section on leading — and standout — track “Family Tree,” which could easily hang with the best numbers in The Sonics’ catalogue. Reigning Sound-channeling “The Lie” and the exceptional “Bicentennial Man” have the same kind of swagger going on — especially “Bicentennial Man,” replete with echoing howls and a tinny Kinks-sounding guitar solo. The chorus for the latter (“What can you expect from this bicentennial man?”) conveys a kind of contemplative anxiety typically absent from the Lips’ music, and marking a definite lyrical departure from bong rips and fights.
The band’s tentative first steps into navel gazing continue on “Spidey’s Curse.” The song’s a contemplation on the mild-mannered Peter Parker/ confident badass Spider-Man dichotomy that casts Parker in a shadowy light. This leads into some suppositions about his teen moodiness and casting the infamous spider in an evil, violator/molester light: “Peter Parker, don’t let him mark ya, it’s so much darker/ Don’t let him touch ya, he don’t have to stay/ Don’t fill a spider up with dread.” Bizarre diddling hypotheses aside, Spider-Man is a great subject for a band like the Black Lips to tackle: the entire story arc is a young guy being insecure and immature, discovering his potential bit by bit, trial by trial. It’s a nice metaphor for the Lips’ coming-of-age story, wherein they fight crime by countering each news story about fights, drugs, pissing on each other onstage, etc. with solid songs.
The Lips’ catalogue is pockmarked with gimmicks along the way (sing-rapping on “The Drop I Hold” on 200 Million Thousand comes to mind, as do various flirtations with country music), but that’s to be forgiven. They’re a young band having fun, being creative, and working through the process of finding their “sound.” Mountain finds the band taking several huge leaps toward that end, resulting in a more cohesive picture of their sound and a band beating down a clear path for where they’d like to take their music. It may or may not be a stretch to say that they’re maturing, but their music certainly is.