Good Bad Not Evil
A few years ago at the Comet, I watched as Black Lips frontman Cole Alexander whipped his peter out and played a few notes on his guitar with it. Then the other guitarist threw his instrument at the bassist, and the bassist punched him in the face. A shower of plastic beer cups from the crowd ensued as the whole band rolled around on the Comet's nasty floor.
It was stupid, boozy, sweaty, and awesome, and it got the group a lot of attention. And then the Black Lips stopped doing much of that crazy shit and started saying they wanted their music to be taken a little more seriously. Today, we have a wealth of indie rockers playing it too safe. Not just on record and onstage, but hell, some of them probably have life insurance policies. I can't imagine any member of the Black Lips planning for the worst. But, Jesus, they should. These guys, at least on the surface, sound like animals. The group embodies the long-lost belief that the band that drinks heavily, plays raggedly, and walks offstage with a bruise or three goes home that night a winner. If they wanted fans to focus on the music and not their vomiting onstage, they had to first give them a reason to. Critics of Black Lips had often commented on the lifelessness of their studio albums. Finally, last year, they provided one with Los Valientes del Mundo Nuevo. Of course, it was a live recording of a show they played in Tijuana. The crowd was insane and drunk, and so was the band. The Black Lips didn't play their songs, they attacked and destroyed them. Songs like "M.I.A." and "Sea of Blasphemy" were like torn rags by the time they were through. But it doesn't take simple drunkenness to pull this off; it takes practice and skill and then lotsa drinkin'. It was obvious from Los Valientes that there were serious musicians behind all the vomitoriums and dick-guitar. The question remained: Could they follow up that raucous beauty with a decent studio effort? Well, I don't know how they did it, but the Black Lips officially made an excellent studio album.
Good Bad Not Evil is a psych-garage record that teeters, like their live show, on the brink of collapse. There isn't a bit of tone or energy sacrificed. The vocals are off-key, the guitars and drums all sound frazzled and disconnected. They keep their neo-Nuggets sound alive with songs like "Veni Vidi Vici" and "Cold Hands." These are like the LSD anthems of yesteryear, especially the opener, "I Saw a Ghost (Lean)," with its reverb-y chorus: "Come on trip/Come on trip/Come on triiiiiiiiiip." Elsewhere, faintly Middle Eastern riffs conjure imagery of opium dens and deranged desert hallucinations, and "Step Right Up" echoes the druggy frenzy of the Velvets' "Run Run Run."
For all its drugginess and booziness, the best thing about this record (and the band) is its sense of humor. On "Navajo" they cast aside all political correctness, building the song around a cliché war stomp with lyrics about falling in love with a Native American ("She took me to a powwow way out on the plains/Runs With Bears danced and brought the rains"). Later, on "How Do You Tell a Child That Someone Has Died," they butcher the shit out of country music, mocking it in a way similar to the Stones' earliest excursions into the genre. The album's keystone track, "Bad Kids," is pure '50s greaser slop, an anthem for the troublemakers in school ("Don't try to give us pills/Oh wait, give us all the pills" and "Smoke cigs in the bathroom stall/Spray-paint a penis on the wall").
When they try to get topical, however, the shit falls apart. "O Katrina!" is about—you guessed it—Hurricane Katrina. "Oh Katrina, why you gotta be so mean/You broke my heart down in New Orleans" sings Alexander. Somehow, coming from guys who, if they ain't goofing off, they're getting fucked up, it's hard to take seriously. Luckily, it sounds like the band doesn't either; the liner notes state: "After writing Katrina we have a acquired a more windswept look that may be seen in the fall editions of GQ magazine." BRIAN J. BARR
The New Pornographers
The New Pornographers rarely grab listeners the first time around. Even after two or three spins, their songs don't reveal that much—a tiny hook here, a slight turn of phrase there. Challengers, their fourth album, is no different. At first, it sounds like a solid if not particularly melodic set of songs. But then it grasps with such force, you'll wonder how you initially overlooked its sway. Challengers is indeed a more challenging record than the Canadian group's previous albums. It's a bit more meditative and complex than 2005's relatively straightforward Twin Cinema. Its best song, the slow-building "My Rights Versus Yours," is erected atop a sequence of abstract words and a vaguely British lilt circa 1977. The Pornographers even get epic on the six-minute "Unguided," in which frontman A.C. Newman contemplates his recent move to Brooklyn. Their most famous member, Neko Case, plays a relatively supporting role on Challengers, checking in with only one stellar solo showcase: the lovely "Go Places." But as their individual personalities give way to the bigger picture—check out the closing "The Spirit of Giving," where all eight Pornographers truly band together—the appeal is obvious from the start. MICHAEL GALLUCCI
The New Pornographers play the Showbox, 1426 First Ave., 628-3151, www.showboxonline.com. $20 adv./ $22 DOS. 8 p.m. Fri., Sept. 14–Sat., Sept. 15.