This is a review of the new Black Lips album, but first let’s focus on the Black Keys instead. I’ve never really given much of a thought to them, positive or negative. If I happen to be listening to modern rock radio, I’d certainly prefer to hear “Howlin’ For You” over Disturbed or Alice in Chains or the Lumineers, or whatever other flash in the pan that’s being pushed this month, and I vaguely remember a few good songs from Thickfreakness and Rubber Factory. Beyond that, I’ve never known enough about the duo to form an opinion on them either way. That’s now changed since I heard that Keys’ drummer Patrick Carney produced Underneath the Rainbow, the newest LP from the Atlanta punk band. Inexplicably, it seems that Carney, against his best interests, used all of the tools at his disposal to ruin everything great about the Black Lips’ sound and turn them into tiny econo-Dan Auerbachs. For this, I feel like the Black Keys need to be held personally responsible.
I can almost imagine this dork pulling up to the studio on Day 1 in his Saab, rolling up the soft top, then sitting the four of them down and explaining that the soccer mom demo is really who’s buying music these days. That’s not to say the songwriting here is bad. Quite the opposite, actually. There are twelve tracks of the southern-tinged garage rock the Lips have made a career of playing, and a majority of them are really good. But production-wise, the whole thing sounds completely two-dimensionally flat. Seriously, Carney has made millions of dollars banging on his kit all over the world, and yet he manages to render even Joe Bradley’s drumming tinny and lifeless over the course of the album. That’s actually impressive in its ineffectiveness. This thing would have sounded better recorded in GarageBand.
Luckily for the Black Lips, they’ve spent upwards of a decade crafting songs that transcend recording budgets, from their cinderblock-wall in-the-red early releases to 2009’s 200 Million Thousand, which very well may have been tracked in the bathroom of a methadone clinic. Hell, one could argue that the quartet’s breakthrough was Los Valientes del Mondo Nuevo, which was recorded live in Tijuana, a setting that doesn’t necessarily conjure up visions of quality control. The only real exceptions to the rule have been Good Bad Not Evil and the Mark Ronson-helmed Arabia Mountain. This has never been a group that needs studio sparkle to get their point across.
The same song quality is still present on Underneath the Rainbow, it just takes a few extra listens to break through the one-size-fits-all, rock radio sheen applied over top of everything. “Funny” and “Do the Vibrate” are the true standouts here, the latter being a Cramps-esque tribute to the auxiliary benefits of your phone’s vibrate setting. “I’ll call you babe, you don’t gotta pick up, darlin'” mumbles singer/guitarist Cole Alexander towards the end of the song. Not exactly subtle, but when has this band ever been reserved? “Justice After All” hops along to a countryish stomp, and the handclaps and pounding rhythm of “Dandelion Dust” really drive home the fact that these guys could probably cross over and break through if they ever decided to care about that sort of thing. “Dog Years” closes out the festivities with a spoken word dirge that recalls back-catalogue highlights “Dirty Hands” and “You Keep on Running”.
Ultimately, this is an adequate album, but one whose production keeps me from being able to fully engross myself in it. Even at its best moments, I feel like I’m hearing a second-hand account of a story or watching shaky, bootlegged version of a movie filmed on a handheld camera inside a theater. I recognize what I’m witnessing, but it’s several degrees removed from anything resembling the warmth of a human element. Glass half full, though: I’m really excited to hear some of these songs played live, loud as possible and without any filters over top. Until then, though, I consider Underneath the Rainbow very good, but not the band’s best.