I had the good fortune of seeing the Black Lips at Burgerama recently (my primary motivation for putting off this review for so long), and the experience of being at the front of that crowd as teenyboppers elbowed and jostled me around to the band’s extremely solid back catalog has greatly informed my experience listening to ‘Underneath the Rainbow.’ It becomes extremely evident that the Lips have settled into their niche as something of a Grateful Dead figure for the garage rock crowd. In many ways, they, along with the late Jay Reatard, sowed the seeds of the recent garage resurgence, and the fact that the scene is so varied and creative lends a lot to the credibility of the band as a subcultural entity. Essentially, they’ve peaked, which is not a bad thing at all. This allows them the freedom to enjoy their status as elder statesmen, free from the responsibility of making a Big Artistic Statement. As such, ‘Underneath the Rainbow’ is not any kind of artistic breakthrough, but it’s a good companion to their live show, if not a perfect reflection of it. It’s rowdy, gritty fun, which, being what we’ve come to expect from the band, takes away some of their edge, but ten or so years on from their first album, that’s ceased to become a problem. Really, it’s just an excuse to hit the road again, which is as good an excuse as any, and one that makes me more than happy to listen to the album several times through on a drunken Friday night.
Run-ins with the law are a recurring theme on the album, and the title of the most prominent ode to troublemaking, “Smiling,” encapsulates the band’s approach to music. It doesn’t feel dangerous or threatening like an encounter with an outlaw usually would, but scrappy and charming like the toothless drunk who is yet again getting the cops called on him. The account offered here of incarceration feels like just another day in paradise, and that’s where the Lips hit their sweet spot. It’s the outlaw lifestyle that’s run through its initial excitement but hasn’t lost its liberating appeal for those dedicated enough to follow the path. So while songs like these might not win any new fans, the hardcore fans who’ve been with them since ‘Let It Bloom’ will not be at all disappointed.
“Boys In The Wood,” the lead single, while catchy enough, almost captures everything that there is to dislike about the band. It’s loud and obnoxious without feeling edgy or dangerous, and it sounds like it was going for a rootsy feel, but the production value is so high as to make the whole effort feel forced and, frankly, kind of unwelcome. And as I noticed when they played it for the crowd at Burgerama, it’s kind of hard to dance to, which is a very bad sign for a Black Lips song, since they’re usually quite good at translating the boogie rhythms of rock n’ roll’s early history for a contemporary audience. The album as a whole contains a mix of successfully executed garage numbers and processed forays into territory reminiscent of the Black Keys, which is no surprise since Patrick Carney of the Keys produced more than half of the tracks on the album. Those tracks, among them “Dorner Party” and “Waiting,” sound like pretty by-the-numbers filler tracks. They don’t make this a filler album by any means, but it’s unfortunate to see that perhaps the band is not entirely comfortable with their cult status, and hope to reach something approaching the mainstream success of the Keys by cloning their sound pretty much to the letter.
While it is not any sort of smash success, I can attest as a huge fan of the band that it’s pretty much just as enjoyable as anything the band has released since ‘Good Bad Not Evil,’ if not more so. It’s got some pretty boring lows, but it’s got some sweaty, exhilarating highs as well. If the band can learn from their successes and mistakes with this album, I’m confident they could hone in on something that could very well award them the cult status of which they’re so deserving, their current legion of devoted fans notwithstanding. There’s no doubt about their authenticity as a garage punk standard – it’s when they try to move outside it to grow their already colorful audience that they seem painfully, awkwardly disingenuous.
Recommended Tracks: Smiling, Boys in the Woods, Dog Years