Album Review: Black Lips – 200 Million Thousand

Self-styled Atlanta “flower punk” band the Black Lips have been putting out consistently great material since their 2003 self-titled debut.  Their unabashed aping of 60’s garage rock has been a staple on my iPod for a few years now, and I’m always excited about a new recording.  I even managed to catch them during their mouth-pissing, guy-on-guy kissing period of live show insanity, which I hear is sadly behind them now.  Oh well, everybody’s gotta grow up sometime.  But the great thing about the Black Lips has always been their juvenile refusal to change their ways.  They are the kids in the back of the room that always cause trouble, throwing spit balls at the teacher and lighting up a smoke in the boy’s lavatory.  Their whole aesthetic was summed up in a song from their 2007 record Good Bad Not Evil, the infinitely catchy “Bad Kids.”  The Black Lips are the champions of the high school losers who grew up with no dads, got all F’s on their report cards, and drew penises on every available wall surface.

Interestingly enough, though, that same album seemed to be a turning point for the band; their Vice Records debut was their most well-produced, cleanest sounding album, and it contained some of their most conventionally catchy songwriting to date.  Behind them were the intentionally lo-fi recording techniques and fuzzy, hazy feel that had been present on all of their previous recordings.  It looked as though the Black Lips were poised to clean up (a little bit, anyway) and make a strong push to bring their Jackass-ery into the mainstream.  Which is what makes their latest album, 200 Million Thousand, such an enigma.

Upon first listen, 200 Million Thousand almost comes off as a step backwards for the Black Lips.  The clean studio feel of Good Bad Not Evil is nowhere to be found, and the songs once again sound deliberately sloppy and maybe even a bit lazy.  Many songs have an even dirtier psychedelic rock sound to them, and the instant sing-alongs like “Bad Kids”, “Oh Katrina!”, and “It Feels Alright” are conspicuously absent, with the exception of the Ringo backbeat-driven “Drugs” and the Byrds-influenced jangle of  “Starting Over.”

I was a bit disheartened after a few listens still didn’t convince me that this record was any good.  The Black Lips putting out a bad album?  Unpossible!  This feeling was not aided by their ill-advised foray into hip hop towards the end of the album with “The Drop I Hold.”  Cole Alexander does not have any flow to speak of, and I don’t think we’ll have to worry about him starting a rap career any time soon, although his improvised yet enthusiastic beat boxing at the end of the song is entertaining.

However, after several more listens, I started to get it.  This record is not too far off from some of their earlier recordings like Let It Bloom and We Did Not Know The Forest Spirit Made The Flowers Grow.  I’m beginning to think that 200 Million Thousand is a statement album.  While Good Bad Not Evil said, “See?  We can make a clean-sounding, catchy rock record that all the kids will like,” 200 Million Thousand screams, “Fuck you, you won’t pin us down!”  The Black Lips are going to continue to make music on their own terms, and in defying expectations have reminded me that, while there’s a lot of “flower” to their sound, there’s also a good dose of “punk.”  I’m glad that they can still surprise me.  I was excited to see what they would do after Good Bad Not Evil, and now I’m even more excited to hear their next record, because I have no idea where they will go with it.

Black Lips – “Drugs”

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