The Black Lips
Good Bad Not Evil
nitially, the biggest qualm I had with the Black Lips latest LP was its title, a jumble of grade-school terms that only reassert the criticisms of immaturity easily attributed to the band. But now I think the phrase is rather fitting; The Black Lips are bad, but they’re good bad. Though they engage in tomfoolery and drunkenness and sleepover party shenanigans, they’re not total dickheads. At the end of the day, they just want to have a good time, and more importantly, they want YOU to have a good time. My parents would have never approved of me hanging out with the Lips, but they would have found them in some way endearing. They could have probably had pancakes on Saturday morning at my house, but they would have had to clean up the vomit stains from the night before.
It’s that very spirit of teenage rebellion that made this year’s live LP Los Valientes del Mundo Nuevo engaging, and it’s all over Good Bad Not Evil, an album whose character is similarly infectious even as it’s simultaneously less forceful. That lack of bite, the snarl and hiss and yowl that ensconced Let It Bloom, the Lips’ 2005 masterpiece of swamp-gurgling voodoo, is also why hardcore enthusiasts could see this as a small disappointment. Though they haven’t lost their charm, the lo-fi experimentalism of their earlier output is behind them.
And so the irony now is that for a band that loves to get naked at their shows, this is their most revealing album yet. The vocals are now easily discernible, the guitars aren’t muffled by static and blearing sound effects, and the drums don’t swallow the bass whole. It would be a stretch to say that the Lips are now a pop band, but it also goes without saying that they’re not doing anything new, which Let It Bloom undoubtedly was. Its genius was taking the sound of the ‘60s, its production trademarks, song structures, and topical concerns, and pushing their boundaries. Vocals would slur beyond recognition, the grime of the rhythm guitar was so murky and all-encompassing that it achieved near-shoegaze levels of atmosphere, and so when that chiming lead came through, oh so small but crystal clear, it was that much more resonant.
The Lips saw connections between the music of the ‘60s and their own philosophies and lifestyle choices, but they re-contextualized them to fit the studio technology of modern times. Good Bad Not Evil does that, but not to the same levels that Let It Bloom did. When it does it from both sonic and thematic perspectives, it exceeds even its predecessor. “Katrina” is a raucous, repetitive garage jewel, its namesake references a girl who “snuffed a highway down in New Orleans.” So when they’re shouting, “I can’t believe what’s on the TV screen,” and making it sound like some crazed teenage mojo, they’re actually being political. The Lips are doing American Nuggets music, British Invasion music, and teenage love song all at the same time, but they’re also taking the uneasiness and political unrest of the ‘60s while also making it relevant for the present. When the Lips are on, they’re doing something that other supposed “garage rock” bands are not, i.e. applying their own trademarks to ‘60s rock instead of recycling used ones.
Parts of Good Bad Not Evil have some fascinating sonic touches. “Veni Vidi Vicious,” whose chorus of “I came / I saw / I conquered all” possesses a sneering malevolence that is positively bad ass, employing a distant, popping percussion and a sneaky guitar riff that recalls a more vicious “For What It’s Worth.” The punctuating guitar line of “Step Right Up,” a shuffling, propulsive rambler, sounds like kazoos blasting into broken amps, while the lazy, weary “Lock and Key” uses a boozy rhythm and infrequent guitar strums that achieve a drugged-out desert vibe not that far off from prime Stones or Brian Jonestown. But the kicker is “Slime and Oxygen,” the most audibly fascinating song on the whole album, where the shimmying guitar riff suddenly explodes into a mess of instruments and Boredoms levels of whirling feedback.
But there are instances when the lack of grit interfere with some songs’ overall effect. “Navajo” spoofs Native American stereotyping songs of the ‘50s, but the music it’s set against is commonplace, a steady rhythm containing little of the band’s classic diversions, ultimately offering a joke with a limp punchline. Then “Bad Kids,” quite possibly the most annoying song the Lips have yet produced, is a juvenile punk-pop number that recalls Fat Wreck Chords tracks but with little of the adolescent ignorance that those tunes wear with such glee.
Still, that’s only one track out of 13, fourteen if you count the hidden haunted house at the end, and those are mostly stunners. If anything, this latest offering from the Lips reminds me of a band not all too far off: Guided By Voices. Pollard & co. were in love with rock & roll and its lifestyle, and so their insane drinking contests and high kicks became empathic lines of connection with their audience. Similarly, their metamorphosis from lo-fi titans to a polished studio outfit lost them a chunk of devotees. But that’s where the Lips can sever themselves from this legacy. GBV was an already enormous cult band trying to appease a larger audience. The Lips aren’t appeasing anyone but themselves, they’re just (gasp) growing up a little bit. Good Bad Not Evil, for all its middle school humor and debauchery, is a cleaner album, but it doesn’t make its creators any worse for making something more palatable. I mean, hey, it’s not EVIL.