Black Lips hit stride with <i>200 Million Thousand</i>
Black Lips blend genres with ease to create a timeless rock album.
Mar. 09, 2009
Novelties wear off, usually quickly. This is an inherent quality of a novelty. The Black Lips should've worn off by now. They were a freak show: urinating on each other, making out on stage and just happening to barely play instruments (sometimes with their genitals). They were supposed to have given up by now or been annually booked for Kevin Barnes' birthday party or ditched the instruments and just become an adult-themed circus. They weren't supposed to last five albums, and they definitely weren't supposed to make one of the most timeless, genre-spanning rock albums in recent memory with 200 Million Thousand.
There's a moment a few minutes into "The Drop I Hold" that feels particularly noteworthy. After an intro sampling the Jonestown Massacre tapes, Cole Alexander basically raps over a dusty old beat that wouldn't feel out of place in a hip-hop Western: "In my palm/Atomic bomb/Vietnam/Black-Lips.com in Islam." This is worth looking at because, first off, what the hell does any of that mean? Secondly, if you listened to this album with no concept of who this band was, the phrase ".com" might be the only signal that these songs weren't made 40 years ago.
Another surreal element about "The Drop I Hold" is that this half-rapped, self-referential word association track ends with almost a full minute of vocal impressions of gun noises. Miraculously, this is entirely listenable, even standout. This isn't to say Polow da Don should be driving across town anytime soon to drop off beats for these guys. Alexander just rattles off a random sort of ominous three-syllable phrases over this chilling backdrop that ends up sounding more Bob Dylan than Lil Wayne.
It brings up another unavoidable element of the enigma of the Black Lips. After hearing Alexander spout of all these phrases, including a shout-out to the Chucks he wears, it's almost impossible to wonder if the whole thing is part of a joke you're not in on. But although the seriousness of their motives has come into question on several occasions, making an essential shortlist of phrases over a badass beat that sneaks their own Web site into the mix almost feels like an exercise in at least mock-seriousness. And the album as a whole is so impressively captivating it really doesn't matter. The toned-down version of their recent live shows seems to mean they're taking themselves a little more seriously these days. Regardless, it sure sounds like they're having a hell of a good time, so why shouldn't we too?
The album ends up feeling more like a soundtrack than one collection of linked songs by one band. This is to say, the music here is so genre-spanning that it can't help but feel like different bands from different eras throughout the 200 Million Thousand, but it all seems to aptly reflect the characters the band has created for itself.
"I'll Be With You" returns the band to their occasional near-country detours of Good Bad Not Evil in a fairly touching and genuine sense. "Short Fuse" is straight up power-rock and "Big Black Baby Jesus of Today" is an epic hybrid of a powerful old-fashioned ballad and classic woozy Lips guitar riffs.
Their infectious ode to the adventures of getting blazed with their buddies ("Drugs") falls somewhere strangely pleasant between sock hop, surf rock and Sublime but is quickly followed by a cautionary song ("Starting Over") where the boys admit they've taken it too far and need to regroup. But then, aptly summarizing the Lips' all-work all-play attitude, they just decide to have another beer and hope everything is all right. Thank God some things never change.