Music Review: The Black Lips' 200 Million Thousand

by Rick Rockwell

Art that transports the listener or viewer is often labeled as transcendent. That word is too deep to apply to the Black Lips and their latest music release, 200 Million Thousand. However, like a saucy transfixing B-movie, the Black Lips have the ability to transport the listener through time and space, suspending the now. That’s truly an artistic success.

Certainly, there’s reason to make metaphorical comparisons between 200 Million Thousand and guilty pleasures like films Desperado and Sin City, both from director Robert Rodriguez. All are entertaining and visceral.

200 Million Thousand even has its cinematic moments. Both “The Drop I Hold” and “I Saw God” have spoken-word cinematic prefaces. “I Saw God” also includes a satiric gospel-rant filled with bleeped-out expletives of passion. What makes “I Saw God” all the funnier is that much of the rest of 200 Million Thousand includes songs spattered with uncensored passages. This is a big clue that the Black Lips have their tongues set collectively in cheek and enjoy playing the role of post-punk provocateurs.

This new release actually begins with a no-holds barred sonic assault that recalls proto-punk pioneers The Stooges. “Take My Heart” is primal, guitar-fueled garage rock at its best. Singer/bassist Jared Swilley and singer/guitarist Cole Alexander trade hoots and shouts that recall Iggy Pop, from the Raw Power era.

Other highlights include “Let It Grow,” a reverb drenched song that wanders into neo-psychedelia. The 13th Floor Elevators would be proud if they heard this number. It sounds like material straight from their late ‘60s psychedelic garage rock hearts. “Body Combat” starts with the type of psychedelic cadence that launched seemingly a thousand songs from the San Francisco wing of the psychedelic movement. (Think very early Jefferson Airplane.) The pulsing guitars of “Big Black Baby Jesus of Today” also have psychedelic tones, but the band slows this number down to establish more of a bluesy groove, in keeping with its lyrics about early 20th Century boxing champ Jack Johnson. “The Drop I Hold” also has bluesy overtones, but the lyrics recall the simple basics of The Ramones, and at times have the same comedic effect, whether intentional or not.

Another standout, “Starting Over” has the boozy feel of a teenage binge-party weekend. Think “Louie, Louie” with a Southern California surfer punk edge and you’ll have the vibe down perfectly. Of the 14 cuts on 200 Million Thousand, only one exceeds four minutes in length, just another reason the Black Lips recall the best of the punk and garage band genres.

200 Million Thousand is this Atlanta-based quartet’s seventh release (including two live releases, which included original material). This release seems to move the continuum forward as it includes all the energy of the band’s past few releases for its label, Vice Records (both Good Bad Not Evil, and Los Valientes del Mundo Nuevo released in 2007) but seems a bit more mature in select spots. “Short Fuse,” one of the singles from this release, even includes acoustic guitars and a synthesizer in the mix.

However, most of this is post-punk with no pretenses. The Black Lips wrap their influences up nicely in a group of songs that would ignite any party or live concert. And for those with the long view of rock history, perhaps the Black Lips aren’t cutting much new ground, but they certainly have a way of freshening these older influences and making them sound modern with the tremolo pulsing, the feedback just south of overwhelming, and the singing pitched at raw and intense.

And like any rock ‘n roll guilty pleasure, 200 Million Thousand may not be among the great albums of the year, but it certainly is very very good at what it does. It gets the pulse racing and feels like a rock n’ roll lightning rod at times. And sometimes being jolted by rock, like what the Black Lips play, is just what you might need.

For more background on the Black Lips, please see these archival posts:

(The promotional photo of the Black Lips is from Vice Records. The Black Lips continue their U.S. tour with an appearance Thursday, Feb. 26 in Birmingham, AL. To see the video for the Black Lips' "Short Fuse," please check below. )

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