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Black Lips
Underneath The Rainbow Tom Hughes , April 11th, 2014 09:52

In 2007, down a side road near Covent Garden, I saw Black Lips play in the old Rough Trade shop. The band were launching their 'It's A Problem, No, It's Not A Problem To Me!' single, and they still very much had the rough and ready, scrappy style of their earliest days despite the more polished Good Bad Not Evil being released a week or two later. The quartet spent the late afternoon set rattling through old and new songs, spitting into the air and climbing speaker stacks into impossibly squashed, guitar-wielding Quasimodo positions. The lead guitarist dazzled me with a full gold grill, the drummer sang a lot and I bought the 7" single for the band to sign - despite not owning a way of playing vinyl at home. I'd worry about that later. It was impulsive, I was an enamoured 17 year old, and we were perfect for each other. 

Four years later and my brief but brilliant dalliance with the band's music had long since ended. Live, they were still electrifying and trailblazing (literally) around the globe, but 2009's 200 Million Thousand had left me cold. Maybe we were ageing at different speeds, but returning to Good Bad Not Evil a while after its release felt like a regrettable fling with an ex; the flaws and blemishes were too clear, we'd both changed and our failings weren't glossed over by passion and hormones any more.

Which is why Arabia Mountain was such a bolt from the blue. Yes it wasn't perfect, but the opening run of eight or nine tracks bled together with just enough of the old hormonal bite, frenzy and wit to remind me why I liked their slightly dangerous yet harmonious combination in my formative years. At the same time, during the intervening period they'd introduced more grown-up song-writing competency, musical professionalism and Mark Ronson's surprisingly tasteful production. It ticked a lot of boxes for a twenty-something fan without the same natural enthusiasm or devotion as a teenager.

I had high hopes for more of the same with Underneath The Rainbow, but sadly Arabia Mountain's residual nastiness and speed is pretty much gone, replaced by slow tempos and weird deviations. It's experiments with synths and disco beats that cause some of the record's truly worst moments. There's the horribly misjudged 'Dandelion Dust'; an attempt to mash together a classic Black Lips vocal delivery with a surprise Goldfrapp glam stomp. 'Do The Vibrate' is an unredeemable, useless mess and 'Dorner Party' is an absolute nadir of lyrical inspiration for the four piece - which is saying something. They're hardly poets elsewhere, but usually cobble together something that papers over the cracks better than this. Not to mention album opener 'Drive-By Buddy', which feels as though it must be a parody, coming across like a drunken cover of an outtake from the Grease 2 soundtrack, but not tongue-in-cheek enough for it to properly feel like a satire.

On the other hand, there are more successful songs, tracks like 'Waiting', 'Justice After All', 'Smiling' or 'Make You Mine'. Each is a nice enough, simple addition to the Lips' cannon, and on 'Boys In The Wood' the slower tempo finally works well, producing a seductive, Stones-esque climb to a subtly brass-backed falsetto peak. During these fleeting moments you get the customary biting lead guitar lines, sparingly used backing vocals, choruses that dart into your brain and refuse to crawl back out again; but it's even more cleansed, tightened and refined than the rampant Arabia Mountain and well beyond anything as psychedelic or ambitious as 200 Million Thousand. Yet this collection of golden nuggets sadly serves to underline the substandard dross that populates the majority of the album. In the same way, the best lyrical turn on the record comes during closer 'Dog Years', with phrases like, "I love you from my guts / it makes me want to throw up". Unfortunately, that glimpse of idiosyncrasy only exacerbates and points an accusing finger at the lyrical emptiness everywhere else, which is a bad note to end on.

A grown up change of pace might work for some, but for Black Lips it's too slow, too stilted. You need that energy, danger and excitement they possessed once upon a time. My teenage love affair could have been rekindled, building on the tempo and humour of Arabia Mountain, but instead they played it safe for the most part and experimented with their formula in ways that didn't need addressing. It's a disappointment they couldn't stick to their guns because it felt like they were on to something, something I could buy into again. In 2011 they were close to a winning combination of youthful exuberance, intelligent production, well-timed experimentation and chaotic pop joy. Yet with this record all has been lost.