Friday, September 7, 2007

I have Black Lips

Somewhere in the 1930s, guitarist Les Paul began taking a 4x4 plank of wood with stings and a pickup to his club performances to get the volume he desired. When he attached the wings of another guitar to each side of "the log," as he called it, he solved his feedback problem and the funny looks from the audience dissipated. In 1957, Sam Cooke made the difficult decision to move away from gospel and record a secular song, "You Send Me", under his own name. In 1964, Eric Burdon took the oft-covered standard "House of the Rising Sun"-- cut by Bob Dylan just two years earlier-- and recorded a more dramatic version with his own band, the Animals, resulting in what was arguably the first folk-rock hit. Sometimes, there's a watershed "Eureka!" moment in an artists' career where they find their ideal context, as if it had been waiting for them all along. For the Black Lips, the live Los Valientes del Mundo Nuevo is it: they should always be recorded by John Reis (Hot Snakes, Drive Like Jehu), always be drunk, and always be in Tijuana.

"This is gonna be the best live record of all time!" assures singer Cole Alexander, like a hopeful dad taking his family on a shithole vacation. And then the band launches into a particularly flame-footed version of "Not A Problem" in front of a roomful of noisy and likely inebriated Tijuana visitors. From the very first track, "M.I.A.", the songs here are sped up to their breaking point, with woozy, haphazard guitar-string bends that flail desperately to catch up with the rhythm section's pace. The jagged, vaguely Eastern riff on "Hippy Hippy Hurrah" is particularly singeing, as the song flips between mumbled French and Alexander's wails. This and the anxious drum fills and windmill chords of "Boone" are some of the finest garage-bred surf-punk the band has to offer.

John Reis' recording of the show doesn't sacrifice an ounce of their energy or tone, nor does he clean up any warts, retaining the awkward banter, out-of-tune vocals, and frazzled connections. Los Valientes always sounds on the verge of breaking down-- not surprising to those who have seen the band's shambolic early shows-- but it never does. Fans will recognize eight of the twelve tracks from Let it Bloom, and the low fidelity and raucous nature of that record makes this rough recording sound familiar. But Bloom doesn't have a roomful of maniacs egging the band on, nor full-band sing-alongs on every possible note; these touches underline both the punk spirit of Black Lips and their unpolished performance style. Whether it's creative editing or just catching the band on a lucky night, it's only on the closing "Juvenile" that the band goes completely off the rails, as they ditch the song's manic two-chord riff for a finale of piercing, rhythmless noise.

I don't buy into it, but for some the romance of decadence and the fascination of the Behind-the-Music lifestyle makes this kind of music more authentic. Black Lips, or at least whoever is writing their press, sure as hell see things that way. They believe that you bleed and sweat and abuse yourself for rock and roll, and the most fucked-up band wins the prize. It's not important whether or not they actually live the myth offstage, just that they channel the spirit into their music with an intensity few bands could try for, much less attain. This quality is what makes Los Valientes del Mundo Nuevo that rare live album that's not just different enough from the studio records to justify its release, but possibly all that beginners and dilettantes need from the band. The Black Lips nearly destroy their songs here, but out of an earnest, palpable love for the material

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