Black Lips have always stood apart from other garage-rock revivalists because they sound so genuinely debauched. A lot of bands (The Dandy Warhols and The Brian Jonestown Massacre come to mind) have done the same thing in a way that somehow feels like a put-on, like they’re trying to recreate the legends of rock bands they grew up loving. But there’s something small and gritty and real about the Black Lips that is reflected in both their lyrics and their sloppy sound. When Jared Swilley sings, “My head is spinning and it feels alright” on Good Bad Not Evil’s ‘Bad Luck,’ it captures the band at its most amoral, charming and, because I’ve felt it too, believable. And though their sound is plundered wholesale from the 60s, Black Lips never sound pastiche because the music itself sounds born of the bands own personal experiences. Still, on 2009’s 200 Million Thousand, the band’s fifth studio album, this formula was starting to feel worn out. On Arabia Mountain, Black Lips go back to the well yet again but this time under the guidance of producer Mark Ronson and with a set of considerably sharper songs. The result is a return to form and a really fun record.
Arabia Mountain opens with the madcap saxophone skronk of ‘Family Tree;’ it’s the familiar Black Lips sound with an interesting new twist (the sax) and its madcap rush puts you in the right mindset for what’s to come. Second track ‘Modern Art’ is a Black Lips classic that captures the band at its most dissipated and infectious. It comes at you fast and straight with shouted verses (“K-hole at the Dali / Seeing the unknown”), a danceable beat and barebones riff before revving to a chorus that is underpinned woozily by a singing saw. After the frenetic opening, the band slows it down with ‘Spidey’s Curse,’ a sunny song about Spider-Man alter ego Peter Parker getting molested as a child. The sweet melody and chiming Byrds-like guitars are off-set by Swilley’s sincere and amateurish singing. Arabia Mountain is a bit front-loaded, but even if it doesn’t maintain the level of the opening three songs it doesn’t let up either, with only minor detours into Ramones homage (‘Raw Meat’) and Stones-y country (‘Dumpster Dive’). Ronson’s production is crisp and clear and seems to emphasize the bands’ melodic side.
At one time, Black Lips were a band more famous for their on-stage antics than the music. With the band members seeming like good candidates to burn out or end up in jail. That dissolute legend gave them an authenticity that is still part of their appeal, but seven albums in Black Lips just keep writing great songs. And on Arabia Mountain, the music speaks for itself.