Album Reviews

Black Lips – 200 Million Thousand

(Vice) UK release date: 16 March 2009

Black Lips - 200 Million Thousand Let’s face it. Most, if not all, of the recent hubbub around the Black Lips has been about their on-stage antics rather than their music. Getting naked, snogging each other, throwing up, drinking wee… getting deported in response to any or all of the above… oh – and, wait – so they make music, too?

Indeed they do, and fans of garage rock from the Velvet Underground and the Stooges onwards will recognise a lot of familiar elements on 200 Million Thousand. There’s the scribbly guitars; the sparse, thumping drums; and the distorted vocals, delivered either with Lou Reed‘s blank boredom or Iggy Pop‘s spluttering and yowling.

There’s also the occasional lapses into gospelly cutesiness, a la Velvets album number three and the tinny, echoey production, sounding for all the world like the album was recorded in the end stall of a thickly-tiled gents toilet. And throughout, there’s the whiff of men wearing shades dark enough for Roy Orbison, or failing that, a man recovering from a recent cataract op.

We are, of course, due a garage rock revival: these things come round every seven years or so. And so the Stooges and the Velvets begat the Ramones and Television, who begat The Jesus & Mary Chain, who begat the ramshackle, less angsty fringes of grunge, who begat Black Rebel Motorcycle Club and the Detroit bands of the early 2000s, who begat the Crystal Stilts and the Black Lips we see before us today.

200 Million Thousand takes us on a whistle-stop tour of these influences: no point listing them track-by-track, but they’re all there. Chords are kept to a minimum: as uncle Lou maintains, one chord is fine, two is pushing it, and with three you’re into jazz. It’s charming enough, but adding little along the way, especially when you consider the similar exercises in recycling conducted in Michigan a few years back by the Detroit Cobras, the Von Bondies, the Dirtbombs, and innumerable other friends and acquaintances of Mr Jack White.

Occasionally we stray into stoner-rock territory, as on The Drop I Hold, which echoes the shabby, drunks-round-a-fire caterwauling of Bob Dylan‘s The Basement Tapes. But we’re never far from the doped-up street hustler persona, marginally closer to Johnny Thunders than to Dylan’s surrealism: “How it goes / feel my nose / like a ghost / Ivory coast / when I boast / feel so lame / what a shame / smoke my brain / got no name / it’s insane / what a game.”

A little too often, though, the Black Lips sail pretty close to garage rock pastiche, as on Old Man, which lifts the drum, guitar and tambourine parts directly from the Velvets’ Venus In Furs; and on Again & Again, which, on a blind taste test, 8 out of 10 garage rock enthusiasts would assign to Frankfurt-based GI lunatics the Monks.

The character of the punky, bratty leather-clad ’50s rebel looms large over the album, whether it’s in the jump-on-the-back-of-my-Harley-bitch Brando swagger of Drugs or the sneering, purposefully dumb-as-fuck Starting Over (with its blank-eyed refrain of “gotta feel stooopid”, it’s like Joey Ramone never went and died on us).

It means that the album’s instantly accessible and familiar to anyone who’s ever smoked a cigarette, flipped the bird to The Man or nailed the pastor’s daughter in the churchyard; but is subject to the law of diminishing returns which kicks in every time the fuck-you teen persona is reincarnated.

Lots of fun, but to come anywhere near appreciating what all the hype is about, you really need to see them live. And preferably before they get deported from your country of residence.

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Interview: Black Lips
Black Lips – 200 Million Thousand