Named for a protected area outside the band’s hometown of Atlanta, Arabia Mountain is the best and most consistent Black Lips album yet, and I am completely aware I said that last time around with 2009’s 200 Million Thousand. From their rambunctious beginnings to their (only slightly less rambunctious) current status as veteran garage rockers, these Georgia boys continue to refine their brand of retro rock. While they were once a noisy punk band with a retro slant, they are now faithfully recreating the era through their own wonderfully bratty punk voice. At the time, I thought 200 was as close as these dudes would ever come to a perfect record. They seemed too big of assholes to clean their act up any more than that. They always had a couple genre experiments or studio-fuck-around tracks per album that were fun, but not always as lasting (Good Bad Not Evil’s spoken-word country tune “How Can You Tell a Child that Someone Has Died” surprisingly stands the test of time, yet 200’s “Trapped in a Basement” and “I Saw God” are forgettable novelties). Still, 200’s high points were many, and higher than ever before.
On Arabia, the Lips craft the most faithful “garage rock” record I've heard in a long time, and more faithful than when all those “The” bands (the Strokes, the White Stripes, the Hives, the Vines, etc.) were proclaimed to have saved rock and roll at the beginning of the new century. A lot of bands have done the throwback well (Mando Diao’s amazing first album comes to mind) but the Lips do it in a way that doesn't just ape the styles of the mid-'60s Northwest garage explosion and the British Invasion—the Lips live the music, down to every detail. Bands like the Sonics were great because the songs were on the verge of derailing at any moment, and here we get the same excitement. The morphing tempo of “Dumpster Dive”, for example, fits the song perfectly, but you wonder how they successfully made it to the end of the take. These songs feel of the era: from the perfect Velvets-to-Stooges-to-Stones guitar tones; the in-the-red natural distortion on the vocals and squawking sax lines à la the Big Man; the drums that groove but aren't on a click track. I’d also like to believe the band members are actually playing in the same room, save some overdubs. Mark Ronson manned the boards for the majority of this album, and with his dedication to retro tones (he produced Back to Black) that may be a possibility. However, the press bio does say they spent a year and half on this album (their longest time spent by a long shot), so maybe not. But it’s so authentic sounding that when I played Arabia while visiting my parents in late June my mom said it “sounded like the Kinks.” I agree, mom!
On the other hand, the Black Lips are too cool to copycat and they don’t let the era hold them back. The sax and organ lines fit the mold, but having singing saw on several tracks would get vetoed upon first mention at most revivalist bands’ meetings. My favorite track here, “Raw Meat” is one of those three, though on first listen you’ll think it’s a super-catchy whistling hook. Along with a crunchy drum beat and hilariously low "oh baby"s from Cole Hamilton, this track is all too short at 1:48.
The Lips always shout out to the Velvet Underground on at least one track per album (on 200, it was "Starting Over") and here it’s “Spidey’s Curse”, with its jangly repetitive riff and hot tambourine. They encroach on Raveonettes territory with the intro claps of “Bone Marrow”, but it quickly becomes their own when the undeniably bratty voice of Hamilton kicks in, along with more singing saw once again. “Don’t Mess Up My Baby” chugs along lightly in the verses, then hits you with dual vocal lines in the chorus. “New Direction” is a no-mess toe-tapper.
Closer “You Keep on Running”, a tripped-out odyssey of sorts, is the only questionable track here. Hamilton (I believe) screeches in the most grating tone he can muster, as the production of the track ebbs and flows oddly in your speakers. And like most of Black Lip’s worst songs, it is the longest on the album. While “Noc-a-Homa”, about the former Braves mascot (and symbol of racism, in this writer’s opinion), is a little weak in the verses, the glorious chorus completely saves it. Perhaps these experiments are as true to the era as the “regular” songs. After all, the Beatles included “Yellow Submarine” on the legendary Revolver.
Once again, the Black Lips have outdone themselves. Maybe they've settled into the perfect ruse: act like the “Jackasses” of the alternative music scene, sneakily setting the bar low with marijuana-fueled shenanigans, then WHAM! Amazing album.