By Roman Salomone, Contributor
[Fire Records; 2007]
Genres: Garage Punk, Garage Rock, Cowpunk, Psychedelic Rock
Welcome back Rock Lobsters! Last time we met, we talked about a New York classic, the Yeah Yeah Yeah’s Fever to Tell. This time, I was thinking we should stay in the US, but take a trip down south to the wonderful state of Georgia. For today, I want to talk about one of my favorites groups and a scenario when one of the nastiest garage rock bands of all time made a subtle yet huge shift towards a more mature direction, which just so happened to result in a stone-cold classic. That band is the Black Lips and the album is Good Bad Not Evil.
Read more: The View From the Afternoon: Yeah Yeah Yeahs – Fever to Tell
The Black Lips are a rock band from Atlanta, Georgia. While the band has seen members come and go, the line-up featured on Good Bad Not Evil consisted of guitarist Cole Alexander, bassist Jared Swilley, drummer Joe Bradley, and guitarist Ian Saint Pe. The band’s story begins when Swilley and Alexander, along with ex-Reruns guitarist Ben Eberbaugh, began playing music together in the northern suburb of Dunwoody around 1999. Swilley and Alexander were kicked out of school for their crude and unhinged behavior, while their friend Joe Bradley was able to join the project after graduating early. Eberbaugh passed away after being struck by a drunk driver before the band’s debut album was released, but the remaining members felt the need to continue onward, believing that he would want them to keep making music.
The band’s early material was notorious for being incredibly low fidelity, rudimentary in songwriting, and sometimes a little too unfiltered for its own good. Not surprisingly, the band’s energy in the live setting was much more of a force to be reckoned with. From their self-titled debut through Let It Bloom and the Los Valientes del Mundo Nuevo live album, the groups’ stage escapades were often offensive, ridiculously gross, or a healthy mix of both. Performing nude, lighting fireworks, projectile vomiting (via Cole’s medical condition), electric R.C. car races, and having free range chickens on stage are just a few antics the band was known for in their heyday. Today, the band has still kept their wild live energy, but have since toned it down more on the shock-factor end, and Good Bad Not Evil was that major turning point for them. This album sees the group in a more “cleaned up” state, in terms of recording and production, focus, and probably sobriety too.
Don’t get me wrong though, there’s plenty of nasty sounds and over-the-top lyrics on this album, but overall, it’s just a cleaner presentation of a band known almost exclusively for being filthy. That becomes a clear point made by the intro track, “I Saw a Ghost (Lean)”, which is about as grimy of an opener you can find on a modern garage rock record. There’s this nasty pentatonic-style blues riff that kicks the song off. The recording has this lofi presence to it, but the instruments still cut through quite clearly, only bleeding into each other in the higher frequencies. Cole sounds frustratingly hungover as he snarls lines about sipping lean and flipping off Bloods and Crips – not exactly the typical stories you hear on a rock album – but if you haven’t caught on by now, the Black Lips are anything but normal.
The second track, “O Katrina”, comes in with a more traditional indie rock-style tune. It’s got a dirt-simple bassline, shouty vocal melodies, and a primitive coating that’s reminiscent of early White Stripes songs. Well, more so if a group of class clown eighth-graders were performing a White Stripes song they didn’t actually learn at a school talent show. That kind of energy. And yet, they somehow landed a spot on Conan O’Brien’s show to play this song. The band, fans, and myself are essentially clueless as to how this came about, but that’s pretty punk rock if you ask me.
“Veni Vidi Vici” is one of the strangest songs that the Lips have ever made. Centered around a sample like you would find in a hip-hop instrumental, calling it a “rock” song almost feels wrong. Plus it’s got a Vibra-Slap part, like come on. I love the super buzzy and sloppy guitar strikes/licks sprinkled throughout and the way the sample is almost a little washed over with reverb. The cut sounds almost like something Ween would have done in the late 90s made, yet it’s beyond carefree and slightly bratty energy makes it have that distinct Atlanta-garage chaos. Cole’s strung out talk-singing is as low effort as it is ridiculously fun and catchy, as he essentially prophesizes incoherent stories of what seems to be religious greatness.
Finding a Black Lips song that’s not littered with immature, crude, or dark humor is almost next to impossible. Even some of the band’s strongest “ballads” are literally about Peter Parker becoming Spider-Man or falling in love and getting a dolphin tattooed on your belly button. Occasionally, the band will give you a fair heads-up about what the song is going to be like in the case of classics such as “Dumpster Dive” and “Trapped in a Basement”. On Good Bad Not Evil, we have the aptly titled “How Do You Tell A Child That Someone Has Died”. It’s a down-on-its-luck, lonesome country-waltz with mopey background vocals and the sort of spoken word narrative sections similar to old crooner groups like The Ink Spots. Now I could sit here and try to explain the track and its unique narrative, but that feels like a disservice to you and your time. It’s barely 2:30, so do yourself a favor and just go listen to it.
Keeping up the humorous lyrics, the next track, “Bad Kids”, is pretty much the band’s signature song and is about, well, being a bad kid. Throwing hissy-fits, getting Fs (six to be exact) on their report cards, and spray painting a certain body part on a restroom stall door, it’s clearly all Garbage Pail Kid-level toilet humor, but it’s so tongue-and-cheek and slightly dark at the sametime that I think it’s almost impossible to dislike. The spirit of the track reminds me of that one kid in every high school class that just can’t not get in trouble, yet he’s as sharp as a knife. An absolute menace to the teachers, challenges the so-called “system” that he’s semi-making up, but he’s got a heart of gold and for some reason, the whole grade just can’t resist his charm. That’s pretty much the Black Lips in a nutshell. As for musically qualities, it’s got some nice little country guitar licks, a hopping bassline, a drum-brushed beat, and some ragtag group vocals that perfectly round out that smoking cigarettes on the playground feel.
So far this album might sound a little too weird for an average rock fan,but trust me, the band does a great job of balancing tracks like “How Do You Tell a Child” and “Veni Vidi Vici” with plenty of snappy and scrappy indie-garage barnburners and some super-lowdown rock cuts. There’s the comatose ZZ-Top impression of “Lock and Key”, the righteous (and surprisingly normal) “Cold Hands”, the spright and choppy “It Feels Alright”, and the band’s twisted take on Dylan-influenced Velvet Underground tracks on songs like “Step Right Up”. Even the shortest track, “Off the Block”, is without a doubt one of the catchiest on the LP, featuring some subtle shock-rock nods to legends like The Cramps and Alice Cooper, but points toward some of the band’s earliest work too.
Still, I find the more offbeat moments to be the most memorable. The harsh crunchiness of “Slime & Oxygen” (the most lofi moment on the album) really serves as a treat for fans of the band’s nastiest early recordings. I mean Let It Bloom had a track called “Punk Slime”, and the audio snippet played in the song’s intro is about as nonsensical as anything from their first recordings. The most oddball song lyrically is easily “Navajo”, a hokey yet wholesome cowpunk love letter to Native American tribes and culture. This cut also served as a slight spiritual successor to an equally catchy Arabia Mountain track, “Noc-a-Homa”, one of my personal favorite Lips tunes. Finally, there’s the closing track, “Transcendental Light”, a song all about the wondrous and joyful topic of dying. With a sort of lowkey heartland rock vibe, the rudimentary open chords, unpolished group vocals, and charming pianos buried in the mix allow for the grim lyrics to brush by without a care in the world. The tune fades out around the 2:10 mark as the boys sorely sing “Follow me, follow me”, but after about 80 seconds, the silence is broken. A weird psych sound-collage hidden track is revealed as tribal cries and organ passages pulled straight out of the ? and the Mysterians playbook closes the album’s final moments.
Good Bad Not Evil is gross, demented, bizarre, and just flat-out dumb at times. Yet, in my humble opinion, it’s a high watermark for garage rock and easily one of the best LPs of the 2000s. From the weirdo takes on blues rock that call back to Captain Beefheart to the straight smartassery at times, this record is just too infectious to ignore. To me, the Black Lips hit the perfect balance of trying to be annoying and intentionally bad, but do that to ultimately make the music tongue and cheek enough to be even more charming. They don’t come off gimmicky or forced with edginess in the way that some more “eclectic” garage punks. On Good Bad Not Evil, the band truly mastered being perfectly filthy while flexing their tattered swagger to make use of the clearer production. So for those of you who want to hear a no-B.S. rock album with a strong sense of dark potty-humor and a lot of hideous noise, look no further.