The irrepressible spirit of Black Lips has always been difficult to contain or capture in the studio. Their untamed live show and the riotous stage antics that make their performances so memorable don’t necessarily translate that well to their recordings, which have merely contained fragmentary glimpses of the fierce effervescent appeal of the Atlanta quartet.
On their seventh full-length, Underneath the Rainbow, Black Lips ditched Mark Ronson’s over-polished sheen which gave 2011′s Arabia Mountain a vibrant modernity, in favor of the gritty garage – but arena ready – rock of The Black Keys’ Patrick Carney and the ambitious sonic tendencies of Budos Band’s Tommy Brenneck, who both split the production duties this time around. And while the feral charms of the group’s volatile live show still proves elusive to fully nail down in the studio, the boisterous new record is filled with plenty of raucous glimpses of what has beat at the unsteady creative heart of this notoriously dubious band for over 15 unpredictable years.
The blustery country twang of “Drive-By Buddy” gets the record off to an inspired start, while playfully echoing the Monkees’ smash hit, “Last Train To Clarksville.” The album as a whole does a stellar job of straddling the fine line between pulsating, jangly pop appeal and ramshackle psych-rock jams that continually threaten to go off the rails. There is a sunny allure to much of these bouncy, insistent arrangements, which are frequently tempered and balanced by the darker undertones of the lyrics themselves.
“Smiling,” for instance, is an entirely upbeat jam, with a pulsating, catchy backbeat that is infectious and downright fun. But the song was partly inspired by bassist Jared Swilley’s brief stint in jail this past year. Black Lips’ idea of a good time regularly involves dark passages, and inevitably, their type of parties lead to disconcerting consequences that they, in turn, make into songs that flippantly make light of the whole ordeal. All the while, being careful (or careless) to not grow virtuous from the entire enervating process. For if they would actually, you know, learn from their mistakes instead of repeating them, then they would cease being the Black Lips entirely, and would venture into safe, suburban dad rock territory.
Even a song with a chipper title like “Funny” – a throbbing standout on the record – has a sultry, ominous stomp to it, echoing the intoxicating modern swing of Crocodiles, while giving the first side of the album a textured punch. “Dorner Party,” perhaps a facetious riff on the desperate cannibalistic tendencies of Colorado’s doomed Donner Party, burns with a raw punk-fueled aggression, coming off as a slightly sunnier sounding Misfits. In between the innocuous, Black Lips-by-numbers of “Justice After All” and “Waiting,” the band stretch out a bit on “Boys In The Wood,” a slinky, CCR-like ode to drinking too much bathtub gin and raising exactly the right amount of hell. It’s an adventurous track for the Lips, and one that has Carney’s contemporary percussive fingerprints all over it.
The sinister churn of “Do The Vibrate” ignites the album’s second half, sounding like a menacing update on the indelible theme song to the ’80s arcade classic, Spy Hunter. “I Don’t Wanna Go Home” is the perfect late-night, ‘let’s stay up until the dawn’ anthem, and the low end fuzz perfectly compliments the track’s defiant lyrical stance while continuing the strong momentum of the record’s energetic sprint to the finish. The tempestuous squall of ‘Dandelion Dust’ again suggests Carney’s basement blues influence, with a surprising stylistic nod to BRMC. “Dog Years” brings the album to an agitated end, with the band giving a modern twist to the subversive sonic provocations of The Velvet Underground and Iggy and The Stooges.
Ultimately, Underneath the Rainbow is the perfect title for the new Black Lips record, because the band isn’t foolish enough to try reaching for any type of illusory brass ring or bogus pot of commercial gold at this point in their career. But they still have left a musical trail of hallucinatory lights lingering long enough in the sky to give us all something colorful to get lost in amidst the dreary surroundings of everyday life.