Few would consider the Black Lips’ career in music a disappointment. The band has survived more than a decade, seen all the members make it to their 30s intact and continued to draw decent crowds and attention when it releases an album. In a few days, they will headline Burgerama for the second straight year, leading a charge of bands 10 years their junior whose primary goal should be to surpass the Black Lips in both chops and success.
So while it is hard to see any failure in the Atlanta four-piece’s arc, when you consider the band’s trajectory in 2007, the Black Lips simply have never delivered on the promise of their fourth LP and critical breakthrough, Good Bad Not Evil. In the three albums since then, we’ve seen the boys lose some of their steam on 200 Million Thousand, reestablish themselves as good songwriters with a slightly over-polished sound courtesy of Mark Ronson on Arabia Mountain, and now, the band has settled in and made their safest-sounding album yet, Underneath the Rainbow.
The garage-country of opener “Drive By Buddy” has all the familiar qualities of Black Lips’ early work, right down to the flower punk the band was branded with in its youth. It almost seems like the entirety of Underneath the Rainbow is intended to rediscover their roots, losing some of the beach-rock vibe of Arabia Mountain with Patrick Carney of The Black Keys doing his best to be faithful to their sound. The problem is the collection is lacking in memorable hooks, letting most songs reside in the melody long enough to hum along, but not enough to actually recall the tune long after it stops playing.
There are standouts, though. “Funny,” which the band has already acknowledged as a black sheep in their catalog, propels off the launch pad with an engine-chugging guitar and a chorus that actually catches the listener off-guard, with a high-pitched synth squeal that sounds busted and held together with tape, while the melody is big and immediate and ambitious, raising the stakes for the first time in many albums. “Dandelion Dust” opens with a rubbery bass line that could be a Rapture jam, but devolves into darker psych-goth bruiser, mimicking the all-day drunk danger that the band can usually transform into for a few mid-set songs.
But these moments, which are exactly what Good Bad Not Evil hinted at, don’t appear with any consistency. In 2007, the Black Lips sounded like so much more than a garage-rock band. They sounded like they could be really important, like something special that transcended their scene was happening when they got together, and these timeless songs were born out of this chemistry that also sounded very much like very specific times. The weirdness of the dichotomy, the irreverence of the lyrics, the spirit of the band—it all created an exciting aura that surrounded their often bizarre activities.
Underneath the Rainbow finds the band straying from that place. Black Lips were probably the last band you’d expect to sound complacent, and now it’s becoming difficult to remember what made them so special in the first place.