With new album The Black Lips Sing... in a World That's Falling Apart (out Jan. 24 on Vice/Fire Records), veteran garage-punk band The Black Lips explore the sometimes loose boundaries between rock 'n' roll and the wild side of country music. In the process, the group's current lineup cut one of its most cohesive collections of songs while showing a new level of maturity as storytellers--Or, to paraphrase their former guitarist Ian St. Pe, they acknowledge their growth over the years from "Bad Kids" to bad uncles and aunts.
"It's like our ninth album, so I didn't want to make another garage rock or psychedelic record," says bassist Jared Swilley. "It felt more natural and definitely helped the creative process by being more focused."
New songs embracing twang and reflecting on getting older include "Gentleman" (Snuffaluffagus namedrop aside) and the harmonious country-rock homages "Chainsaw" and "Odelia."
Unsurprisingly, Gram Parsons' hangout sessions with The Rolling Stones leave a mark on the album, but as normally happens with punk records, most reference points come from obscurities, not benchmark moments in rock or country history. Legendary Atlanta DJ and record collector Greg Germani's crate-digging finds sparked Swilley and guitarist Cole Alexander's curiosity years ago. Country and rockabilly outsiders discovered through Germani or the band's own deep dives include O.B. McClinton, Don Bowman, Charlie Feathers and "Psycho" singer Eddie Noack.
"Some of that country stuff is right up there with The Exploited and Sex Pistols as far as angst and some of the stuff they talk about like murder," adds drummer Oakley Munson. "The fuzz tones blow away 'Satisfaction' by the Rolling Stones. It still has the same kind of appeal as far as definitely not being mainstream."
For its country album, the band and its newest member, guitarist Jeff Clarke, slightly altered an established sound: One that's been tidied up in recent years by such producers as Patrick Carney and Mark Ronson and in-studio guests Yoko Ono and Sean Lennon. There were no Black Keys or Beatles ties this time--Just two different pedal steel players called Catfish.
Focusing on country music tropes challenged the band as songwriters, resulting in the next level storytelling of "Rumbler," a tale about one of Swilley's uncles whose unreal life might have inspired a GI Joe action figure's backstory.
"You can't hide behind crappy lyrics that you could on a punk rock song or a garage rock song," Alexander adds.
That's not to say that the band completely sidestepped a little low-brow humor ("Hooker Jon") or scuzzy weirdness ("Live Fast, Die Slow"). As Porter Wagoner used to say, they still play the sorts of songs that brought them here.
Fans less jazzed about old country music will at least appreciate the band's decision to finish Velvet Underground song snippet "Get It On Time." Saxophonist Zumi Rosow sings the straightforward, John Cale-approved cover that initially was meant to sound like A.M. country gold.
"I kind of had an idea to make it more like a Dolly Parton kind of song, but then we did it in one take, straight like we'd normally do it," Munson says. "We liked that take, so we kept it on there like it was."
In all, the album should appeal to fans of former member Jack Hines' work with underrated country-inspired band Georgiana Starlington while furthering longtime Black Lips buddy Orville Peck's yee-haw agenda. Besides, not throwing out the garage baby with the lo-fi bathwater beats the band's other idea.
"We talked about doing some more tongue-in-cheek modern country, but we didn't get around to that," Munson says. "It'd be hick-hop or really over the top keyboard stuff. That was a little too far of a reach. Maybe for the best... It came out sounding more natural."