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Black Lips - 200 Million Thousand

  by Jeff Thiessen

published: 1 / 4 / 2009

Black Lips - 200 Million Thousand
Label: Vice Records
Format: CD


Wildly uneven fifth album from Atlanta, Georgia punks Black Lips which has them abandoning the manic psychosis of their previous releases and thrilling, intriguing and above all confusing their audience

I don’t really understand why some bands make albums. I really don’t. It just screws things up for them. By the same token, I’m not sure why some bands play live music either, but until I write a piece on Spiritualized, we’ll save that discussion till a later date. The reason I bring all this up is I sincerely believe that if bands like The Jesus Lizard, and the subject at hand, Black Lips, refrained from studio releases, they’d be household names, or at the very least, bigger than Primal Scream. It’s almost like these bands were created strictly based on the fact that there are stages out there, with people who pay to stand in front of them, and on those stages, musicians play. The problem is somewhere along the way we decided that isn’t quite enough. We also want your music to exist in our homes, ignoring the fact that certain music really doesn’t belong in a patched together, expedient little portable form of accessibility, so these bands are forced to shove seventy-five pounds of music in a twenty pound bag, and, no matter what is left out, people will always be wondering why these bands just don’t buy bigger sacks. The truth is, no studio release can properly communicate the chaos/liberation one finds at a Black Lips show. In fact, I’m always a bit shell-shocked when I see a Black Lips album in a record store. It's like when you’re young, and you see your teacher out in public somewhere, and you’re shocked to find out her existence isn’t solely defined by her being a teacher. The notion of her having a life outside of that school where she spends eight hours a day is completely overwhelming at first. To me a Black Lips record should only be something you pick up in a punch-drunk haze following one of their cerebral-shattering gigs, not because you want to take it home and listen to, but because it’s cheap, and that’s just what all the other drunk people are doing after the show. Unfortunately that’s just not realistic, and now I’m faced with the responsibility (a word that should have no association with this band whatsoever) of examining an actual literal studio album from the Black Lips, specifically their new one, '200 Million Thousand'. Now, the problem with past records from those Atlanta boys is they seem to be defending the traditions inextricably linked with their dishevelled, helter-skelter way of doing things, instead of preserving them and pushing them forward. On '200 Million Thousand', it has the sound of a band trying to break free from their own limitations that they (or their fans, doesn’t really matter by this point) have shackled them with. Instead of lunging free of the manacles with the berserk lunacy that we all sort of expect from such a group we get sort of a compliant, withdrawn limp in a direction that is definitely not akin to where we have come to expect them to go, but it’s not more then a stone’s throw away either. The Black Lips used to be the freaks for the geek show, and it was a fusion that worked very effectively, since neither party really expected a whole lot from each other. Not sure what brought this on, but '200 Million Thousand' seems to be saying that there is no more business as usual, but don’t worry the learning curve is about as steep as a chicken mcnugget. Gone is the manic-psychosis of all their past releases, and really gone is the endearing jumbled assortment of jagged angles that so admirably seemed to try and fit together on their great 2005 album, 'Let it Bloom'. What we’re left with is a jigsaw puzzle that finally seems to have come into place, but more importantly, we have to determine if that was even the goal in the first place. If you always saw Black Lips as a project, as a means to an eventual more lucid effort, '200 Million Thousand' is the album for you, whereas if you saw them as a baffling, larger-then-life puking entity that has no facility to represent anything other then the exact current moment, you might have trouble accepting the coherency that is their newest project. Even if you saw Black Lips as an investment, the problem with '200 Million Thousand' is they haven’t quite figured out how to help you cash in yet. It’s a wildly uneven record, hard for us to take a step in any direction without feeling rampaging sensations that will constantly leave us feeling thrilled, intrigued and confused. Mostly just confused though. Take the opener for example, 'Take My Heart'. It’s an awesome song, one that almost sounds the bastard child of the Blasters and New York Dolls, but without even the slightest hesitation, the band immediately jumps into 'Drugs' (not a cover of the Talking Heads song), a sort of retro-diner hand-clapping throwback that neither achieves the desired garage romanticized effect, nor even fully strives for it. The next three tracks sound like something off 'Revolver', strategically forced through the brunt of a meat grinder. I know Black Lips fans are a forgiving bunch, but the scraps that remain here are just too barren and mangled to give us anything worthwhile to latch onto. 'Short Fuse' changes the pace abruptly, and lucky for us it’s not just for the sake of variety. This track packs a wallop. Believe it or not, with some polish and socio-political musings, this would not be out of place on 'Dear Science'. At first the utter success of this song pissed me off. I mean after all, Black Lips songs aren’t supposed to actually work. They’ve always just given us a big sloppy mess to deal with, and we could pick up the pieces we liked best. It was easy that way; I mean who do these guys think they are? Either way, it saves us the trouble from grousing on the ground with all the other drunken buffoons, but, however, it must be stated that some of my best friends were found in such a place. Guess we’ll now have to bond over ipod playlists like that Nick and Norah couple. 'I’ll Be With You' is, along with 'Short Fuse', on a single so I had high hopes going into the song, but they were quickly dashed when it just proved way too derivative of 'Dirty Hands', the thirteenth song found on 'Let It Bloom'. I don’t mind regression, especially with a band like Black Lips, but this record seems to be trying to amble someplace different then the perpetual stationary stumble that permeated throughout all their past works, so I can’t let 'I’ll Be With You' off the hook, nor can I forgive 'Old Man', which is almost a direct duplicate of 'Hippie Hippie Hurrah', found off that same 'Let It Bloom' album. I have got to be picky here, because behind all of those original songs is a story, and behind all of those stories is mayhem, and from a bird’s eye view of all that, it looks like they were a logical linear path that had a beginning, and a blood-soaked end, one that ended certifiably in 2005. I was happy to hear a quote begin 'The Drop I Hold',simply because I hadn’t ever heard a sample on a Black Lips album before. Just the thought of the band gathering around and utilizing a sampler is all sorts of funny to me, but all kidding aside, for my money this is the strongest cut on the album. I’m pretty sure Rza would have liked to get his hands on a track like this, as its haunting, aural soundscape would have fit in real nicely sandwiched in between 'Severe Punishment' and 'Older Gods' on the double Wu-Tang record,'Wu-Tang Forever' but I for one, am happy it ended up with Black Lips. To me, it’s absolutely perverse they didn’t expand on this gorgeous, swashbuckling ballad that constantly threatens to lose its footing, but miraculously, some meticulously placed pop solidity up and surfaces when we least expect it. Think of the best moments on The Replacements Hootenanny album. The closest Black Lips comes to replicating the resounding success of 'The Drop I Hold' is a couple songs later with 'Elijah'. The herky-jerky structure finally gives way to singer Jared Swiller standing tall while everything around him seems to be collapsing, or at least threatening to. This is the last meaningful song on '200 Million Thousand'. The damage doesn’t become lethal until the last two closing tracks on the record.'I Saw God' is an ill-advised acid trip/journey through the perils of Solipsism, but just comes off as totally moronic (if I wanted an existential mumbo jumbo operating under the guise of high art, I have the great Germs song 'Shut Down (Annhiliation)'. At least there you can hear the band throwing beer bottles at people’s heads). Finally, 'Melt Down' brings it all home, where that is, who knows anymore, but by this point it’s literally impossible to forge any factual reaction towards anything on the record, as all our arteries and nerves are now frayed beyond repair, and the task at hand seems to be getting out of the room alive with something, anything left intact. There was just too much to take in. I can’t really wholeheartedly recommend '200 Million Thousand', as it never really allows itself to sink to gut level, or be elevated above the trenches; instead we are forced to run the gamut back and forth with the band while they decide which direction they want to go. Half the lyrics don’t make any sense, and every second track seems oddly interested in taking us into some Black Lips themed nirvana, which is starting to just sound like a place where nothing really happens, but a whole lot of people are there bumping into each other. It’s not all bad, and there are enough good moments on here to justify an attempt at intelligibility on the part of the listener, but for the most part I failed. Basically, all I’m saying is if I wanted a cosmic journey into the unknown of all that is stupid and kismet, I’d listen to an early Butthole Surfers record. They understand the real dynamic behind the eye of the hurricane: there are no victims, only survivors.

Track Listing:-
1 Take My Heart
2 Drugs
3 Starting Over
4 Let It Grow
5 Trapped In A Basement
6 Short Fuse
7 I'll Be With You
8 Big Black Baby Jesus Of Today
9 Again & Again
10 Old Man
11 Drop I Hold
12 Body Combat
13 Elijah
14 I Saw God
15 Meltdown
16 Digital Booklet: 200 Million Thousand

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