Atlanta originals Black Lips join forces with Fire Records for a new album ‘Sing In A World That’s Falling Apart’ out 24th January via Fire Records/Vice
Boasting an unapologetic southern-fried twang, the twelve track collection marks the quintet’s most pronounced dalliance with country music yet, with a clang and harmony that is unmistakably the inimitable sound and feel of the Black Lips. While the songcraft and playing is more sophisticated, Black Lips were determined to return to the raw sound roots that marked their early efforts. Recorded and co-produced with Nic Jodoin at Laurel Canyon’s legendary, newly reopened Valentine Recording Studios (which played host to Beach Boys and Bing Crosby before shuttering in 1979) without Pro-Tools and other contemporary technology, the band banged the album out directly to tape quickly and cheaply, resulting in their grimiest, most dangerous, and best collection of songs since the aughts.
The band’s stylistic evolution and matured approach to musicianship and writing is, in part, due to the seismic line-up shifts they have undergone over the last half decade. Worn down after a decade of prolific touring and recording, longtime guitarist Ian St Pé left the group in 2014, followed shortly thereafter by original drummer Joe Bradley. Jeweller/actress (and now Gucci muse) Zumi Rosow, whose sax skronk, flamboyant style, and wild stage presence had augmented the team before the duo’s departure, assumed a bigger writing and performance role in their absence.
Soon drummer Oakley Munson from The Witnesses brought a new backbeat and unique backing vocal harmony into the fold. Last year the quintet was rounded out by guitarist Jeff Clarke of Demon’s Claws. The newly forged partnership, all of whom collaborate as songwriters, vocalists, and instrumentalists, has breathed new life into their sound. The result is akin to the radiance of the impulsive, wild nights where you find yourself two-stepping into the unknown.
“Gentleman,” the fifth track from the Black Lips new LP Black Lips Sing As The
World Falls Apart kicks in with “This old middle finger has grown fat and tired
from flicking the bird.” After two decades of flickin’ the bird, are the perpetual
Bad Kids of 21stCentury rock’n’roll finally growing up on their 9th studio album?
The song craft and playing is definitely more sophisticated. And what could be
safer than another love letter to the most self-consciously traditional American
music genre? Country music. Have these provocateurs finally settled down, come
to peace with themselves, and made a record their parents could listen to?
Before you go jumping to conclusions without even hearing Sing As The World
Falls Apart, you gotta remember this ain’t another gaggle of bearded southern sons
fleeing their collective suburban upbringings and collegiate music taste to claim
their birthright of geographic authenticity. This is not a stab at “pure” or “honest”
country music in the usual sense. You won't find the usual clichés about drinking,
honkytonks, and heartbreak enhanced by impeccably recorded pedal steel. And
this ain’t no uninspired attempt to accurately recreate another time and place.
These are after all are the same Black Lips who rescued the waning garage punk
subgenre from oblivion. And they achieved this because they made no attempt to
sound or dress like their musical predecessors. They were also into contemporary
hip-hop and punk. They weren’t looking back to hide from the modern world.
They fell in love with clandestine classic rock and turned it on its head as they
pleased. Their mission was not to recreate garage punk note for note (or chord for
chord). The opposite of painting by numbers, the teenage quartet was more
interested in embodying the rebellious spirit of the thing. They also got wasted
and broke stuff and made out and made trouble. In other words the Black Lips
found their own distinctive sound and hence their fame raising their own kind of
country hell. They actualized themselves by flicking the bird.
While I recognize the banality of bringing up Old Town Road, I can’t think of a
better way to explain Sing As The World Falls Apart. It’s no secret that genre and
subculture and musical signifiers were disappearing into the horizon long before
Lil Nas X was born. And these rigid 20th Century codes survive today primarily as
playthings and raw materials for new art. The Black Lips were raised on country
music and never stopped listening to their Roger Miller and Johnny Cash. But like
Lil Nas X, Black Lips are Atlanta misfits with no interest in recreating the music of
their parents and grandparents or even their peers. Instead they’re having a
blast inhaling the diesel smoke as they hitchhike wide-eyed down the lost highway
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of their dreams. The twang they grew up with has been a part of who they are the
entire time. Lil Nas X and the new Black Lips both barrel through the swinging
doors of the honkytonk just around the corner. They walked by there every day.
But this is their first time inside and they know at best the whole place will stare
them down. But either way both entities are gonna drink and dance and flirt and
make a spectacle of themselves because they know in their hearts they belong there
just as much as the ornery regulars. Far from calculated, both adventures into
country feel inevitable. And they radiate the impulsiveness of those wild nights
where you find yourself two-stepping into the unknown.
Like The Byrds who flirted with pastoral aesthetics every now and then before
going all out with the radical departure that is Sweetheart of The Rodeo, the Black
Lips have been playing with the genre since including “Sweet Kin” and “Make It”
on their first album. But instead of Graham Parsons earnestness, the band is
careful not to even hint at authenticity and wisely treads into their unfeigned
rustic romance with the winking self-awareness of Bob Dylan’s “You Ain’t Goin
Nowhere,” Rolling Stones “Dear Doctor,” or The Velvet Underground’s
“Lonesome Cowboy Bill.”
Like many dramatic moments in the Black Lips career, you could say the
stylistic turn of Sing As The World Falls Apart was born out of crisis. Original
guitarist Ben Eberbaugh was tragically killed by a drunk driver on the eve of
their first tour in December 2002. A year later legendary rock’n’roll writer,
editor, and record man Greg Shaw passed away shortly after releasing the Black
Lips first LP on his historic Bomp imprint. The band’s rapid stylistic evolution
through the ensuing decade of prolific touring and recording took them where
no garage punk band had gone before - huge venues, network television shows,
and major music festivals. By 2014 longtime guitarist Ian St Pé split. Original
drummer Joe Bradley, whose rhythm, songs, and backing vocals were integral
to the band’s sound, soon followed St Pé out the door. Guitarist Cole
Alexander moved to Los Angeles. Bassist Jared Swilley stayed in Atlanta. Songs
and recording sessions were fewer and further between. Making a living the
only way they know how, the Black Lips continued to burn up the road like
their 20th Century honkytonk and chitlin’ circuit heroes – gaining and losing
members up and down the big ol’ highway. The lineup changes hit them hard.
Plus twenty years of chasing what Genghis Khan called “the eternal blue sky,”
along with the relentless party lifestyle that stems from low friends in low places
on every stop of the way, took a huge personal and creative toll on the
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band. You got the feeling that the Black Lips would soon be nothing more than
But now what can Cole and Jared to do but sing for a rock’n’roll band? It’s who
they are. Jeweler/actress (and now Gucci muse) Zumi Rosow, who added a dash of
sax skronk, flamboyant style, and wild stage presence to the team before the
departure of Bradley and St. Pé, assumed a bigger role in their absence. Soon
Oakley Munson from The Witnesses brought a brand new beat and unique
backing vocal harmony into the fold. And last year their guitar-slinging amigo
from way back Jeff Clarke of Demon’s Claws completed the lineup. These new
additions aren’t backup musicians. The Black Lips are currently five prolific
collaborating songwriters, voices, and instrumentalists. The newly forged
partnership is breathing life into their sound, entering uncharted territory, and
democratically taking everything up a notch with the joy of people who love being
around one another.
After the long dry spell, the band found itself in a hyper-productive boom and
came up with more than two-albums worth of solid material almost
overnight. After three laborious full-lengths recorded by big names like Mark
Ronson, Black Keys’ Patrick Carney, and Sean Lennon over long stretches of time
at state of the art recording facilities, the Lips decided it was time to return to their
roots of raw sound and self-production. So they loaded up the truck and they
moved to Laurel Canyon’s newly reopened legendary Valentine Recording
Built in 1946, Valentine was where everyone from Bing Crosby to the Beach Boys
recorded back in the day. But after a long slow decline, in 1979 the studio shut its
doors to the public. And the entire place was preserved in the amber until they
reopened it a few years ago. Like their early classic LPs, without pro-tools and
other contemporary technology, The Black Lips banged out Sing As The World
Falls Apart directly onto tape quickly and cheaply.
The result is the Black Lips grimiest, most dangerous, and best collection of songs
since the aughts. Skidding onto the asphalt in a shower of sparks, they confidently
roll through the first few numbers with unapologetic southern-fried twang. Their
musicianship and writing has matured and they’re loosely dancing around a new
genre, but the clang and harmony is unmistakably the inimitable sound and feel of
the Black Lips. While they succeed at holding back and pacing the beast, every
now and then the psycho howl and rubber room madness lurking underneath
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explodes into truckstop fireworks. As the clouds glow cartoonish and the
kaleidoscopic panorama dissipates before you, the rig screeches and spins and flips
off the road. Its flaming back half dangles from a desolate overpass as the band
escapes in a cloud of smoke and runs to the safety of an adjacent cornfield. By the
time you're here at the end of the story, you decide these good ol’ bad kids deserve
a chance to steal the tractor and bump through the promise of the vast Max Ernst
landscape that awaits. So you let ‘em get away with it.
This definitely ain’t your granny’s country album. And conversely this definitely
ain’t your mama’s Black Lips. But they’re still flickin’ the bird.