Douglas Martin’s Dirty Shoes: Arabia Mountain and the Surprising Improvement of Black Lips

Douglas Martin has never even been to Arabia. The production services of Mark Ronson usually only attract two types of artists: arrivistes attempting to break into the alternative mainstream, and...
By    June 1, 2011

Douglas Martin has never even been to Arabia.

The production services of Mark Ronson usually only attract two types of artists: arrivistes attempting to break into the alternative mainstream, and established artists looking for a little indie cred. This is an approach that has worked extremely well for Ronson, as he gets to enjoy the spoils of regularly being invited to the Grammys, is coveted by every major men’s magazine in the world, and probably gets the best cocaine that money can buy (courtesy of occasional singer and professional junkie Amy Winehouse, his sister Samantha’s on-again, off-again girlfriend Lindsey Lohan). I suppose he’s decent on the knobs, but generally, artists go to Mark Ronson as a career move or status coup rather than anything he could possibly offer musically.

Therefore, it becomes kind of peculiar that Black Lips– the infamously rambunctious Atlanta “flower-punk” outfit (their term, not mine), best known for getting kicked out of venues for pissing on each other onstage– would enlist Ronson to work the boards for their sixth album, Arabia Mountain. Are they closet Lily Allen fans? Was this all an elaborate plot to get Lohan’s dealer’s number? Are they getting… serious about their career? (Sorry. Excuse me for a second.) Whatever the reason was, and probably against all odds, Ronson and the Lips teamed up and recorded what is their most focused– and maybe even best– album.

One thing you can guarantee: if Mark Ronson produces your record is that it will have horns, which first appear seconds into opener “Family Tree”. The song is plenty rousing, but attempts to paint the band as the booze-swilling scamps they’ve built their reputation from, only to have some of it lost in translation with their previous grit scrubbed away. Thankfully, the only other song on the album that suffers this fate is “Noc-A-Homa,” which flounders with its limp songwriting, something the band has always been capable but hardly ever exceptional at.

The rest of the album fares better for them, as they use Ronson’s glossy-but-not-overtly-so recording prowess to slightly push the somewhat limited boundaries they’ve set for themselves. Sometimes– like on Good Bad Not Evil standout “How Do You Tell a Child That Someone Has Died”– the Lips get a little creative with their songwriting, like on “Spidey’s Curse”. Housing a catchy guitar line and Cole Alexander’s boyish vocals, the tune serves, as the title suggest, as a sensitive, jangly ballad for Peter Parker. Which is kind of surprising to me, because I would have taken Black Lips as a Wolverine kind of band.

Black Lips are given room to experiment with their sound more on Arabia Mountain with Ronson’s assistance, as their past records have just been of the “press ‘record’ and go” variety. Glockenspiels and Theremin make their way onto lead single “Modern Art,” while “Raw Meat” features whistling in conjunction with woozy synths in the chorus and “Bone Marrow” is excellently produced with its hip-hop-ready kick drums and claps, along with more Theremin. Baritone sax is included on album highlight “Mad Dog,” making you believe that you’re in some alternate universe where these guys actually care about sonic detail. Or maybe they’re just taking different kind of drugs.

It helps matters that Ronson’s production makes the songs sound punchier than they may have in the past, but Arabia Mountain definitely shows Black Lips’ improvement as a band. All of the songs are played tightly (and not just “tight” by Black Lips standards, which would mean “as tight as the cap of a flat soda bottle,” but actually tight), and a sense of Mason-Dixon rock-and-roll boogie permeates throughout all of the album’s songs, but not in a shallow, post-Aha Shake Heartbreak Kings of Leon kind of way. “New Direction” comes across as southern surf rock, which scratches an itch I didn’t even know I had.

If there’s a problem with Arabia Mountain, it’s that it overstays its welcome a little, rendering the albums great songs that much greater by standing alongside a bevy of others that are merely good. Sixteen tracks is a lot of music to stomach, especially when you’re a band that is, at it’s top-dollar best, slightly above average. On closer “You Keep on Running,” the band pulls off smoky blues-rock with a generous handful of weirdness, drunkenly stumbling along in the dark and yelling at all of the shadows, either not aware or all-too-aware that those shadows are their own. But against all odds, even occasionally in spite of themselves, Black Lips continue to keep moving, albeit laterally instead of forward. It’s hard to figure out where the band fits into the wider landscape in indie-rock these days, since they’re seemingly unwilling to only get by on their shitfaced charm, but don’t measure up to the new crop of garage-punk bands coming up nowadays. Regardless, Arabia Mountain is their best album yet, and– considering that the Mark Ronson affiliation could have completely ruined it– that should count for something.

MP3: Black Lips-“Modern Art”
MP3: Black Lips-“New Direction”

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