In 2008, after the Black Lips had finished touring behind their breakthrough album, Good Bad Not Evil, it would have been hard to imagine the Atlanta four-piece in the situation that surrounds the release of Arabia Mountain. That “situation” is, well, uncertainty and again being in the position of having something to prove. See, where Good Bad Not Evil put the band in position to ascend to new heights both commercially and artistically, they basically wiped the slate clean with its follow-up, 200 Million Thousand.
Not that 200 Million Thousand was a bad album, far from it. It was just a forgettable album, forcing the band to continue to thrive on their chaotic live shows, which unfortunately (or fortunately) had become much less chaotic, hardly ever including the on-stage urination or broken-bottle stabbings that occurred in the group’s early days (I have no verification if anything like this actually happened, but I like to imagine it did). It wasn’t that the Black Lips had lost their identity, but it suddenly felt like their time to ascend had passed.
So what do the Black Lips do to lead up to the release of Arabia Mountain? Well, they spend a solid six months pre-touring and releasing a number of (quite good) singles from the collection. They, also, work with Mark fucking Ronson. But, Ronson’s work on Arabia Mountain is hardly notable except that he has seemed to guide the group back to their strengths, allowing them to deliver their most focused effort to date. In short, this is the Black Lips sounding like they have sounded at their best, and that is indeed something to celebrate.
The band shows its hand from the get go, with two infectious and immediate tunes, “Family Tree” and “Modern Art.” The former, with the snarly “all right now” before the chorus, hits the listener like a jolt from a defibrillator, maintaining all the dirt and slime that we love about the band without losing sight of the song’s forward momentum. “Modern Art” is even more pop-friendly, but textured (yeah, that is a saw that you hear in the background), so any worry of slickness from a Grammy award winning producer quickly fades.
All four members of the band showcase their songwriting talents on Arabia Mountain, and begin to differentiate themselves enough for the audience to develop their favorites, while still maintaining their presence as a collective. Cole Alexander proves to be the group’s jagged edge, penning tunes that firmly plant the Black Lips in the garage, where they belong. Whereas “Family Tree” and the Spiderman-themed “Spidey’s Curse” resonate as the strongest of his tunes (and the latter makes a strong case that the wrong band was chosen for the Spiderman musical), “You Keep On Running” takes things a little too far, ending the album with a dragging track that could force a listener to look at their watch, finally feeling the weight of 16 tracks.
On the other hand, bassist Jared Swilley winds up as the star of Arabia Mountain. Swilley locks down the album with its pair of bonafied hits (“Modern Art,” “New Direction”) while also guiding the band through its most rewarding left turns. The hand-clapping foot-stomper “Bone Marrow” plays on minimalism with an eye towards a gradual build, transforming a simple melody into a genuine party over the course of a few short minutes. Likewise, “Mad Dog” finds the band earning their flower-punk stripes, combining elements of surf, psychedelia, punk, and 60s-inspired garage into a neat package, winding up as the song Thee Oh Sees always seem to be trying to write.
Adding to the collection are able efforts from Joe Bradley and Ian St. Pe, rounding out Arabia Mountain to become the album that the Black Lips should have made after Good Bad Not Evil. But, as they say on Lost, whatever happened happened, and looking back at career choices is pretty pointless. Instead, consider Arabia Mountain as a strong return to form from a band we would all be disappointed to see fade into obscurity. Arabia Mountain is energetic, fun, loose, and immediate. Everything the Black Lips should be.