In the classic 1980 film “The Blues Brothers,” musician Elwood Blues inquires of a bartender, “What kind of music do you usually have here?” and the bartender responds, “Oh, we got both kinds. We got country and Western.” Of course there are lots of other kinds of music, and for most of the 21st century Atlanta’s The Black Lips have been combining them with country and Western. The band has spent the last two decades combining garage rock, soul, pop, lo-fi, country and punk into a chewing-tobacco-flavored musical stew.
The Black Lips’ latest album, aptly named Sing in a World that’s Falling Apart, captures the band’s hybridizing musical approach using some fancy studio wizardry but without losing the trailer-park vibe.
Many of the album’s tracks are story songs, like the Beatles’ “Rocky Raccoon”—if Rocky were a rabid meth-head on the run from the law and a posse of ex-wives hellbent on hunting him down and collecting their alimony payments.
The album’s opener, “Hooker Jon” occupies a liminal musical space equidistant between country music legend Johnny Paycheck and The Butthole Surfers. Searing slide guitar undergirds a tale of prostitution mistaken identity. Single “Rumbler” tells the story of a disgruntled law enforcement officer going rogue set to a soundtrack of raunchy guitars and harmonica.
“Live Fast, Die Slow” is a caterwauled entreaty to adopt a more reckless lifestyle. The song’s narrative of a midnight change of consciousness evokes comparisons to The Butthole Surfers’ “John E. Smoke.”
Known almost as well for their NSFW live shows as for their music, The Black Lips freely admit to learning their instruments on the job. But their growth as musicians is obvious on the new record. The jangly acoustic and plaintive slide guitar playing on “Chainsaw” would sound right at home at any honky tonk or Southern Denny’s. In fact, the band’s musical proficiency makes determining if the song is satire or tribute difficult.
The upbeat, rockabilly sound of “Holding Me Holding You” and the vaguely surfy “Odelia” sound like they were recorded with some of Nashville’s best session musicians as both the production and musicianship are top notch.
At times the album’s songs approach Phil Spector levels of adornment with backing vocals, pedal steel guitars, maracas and shakers. The opulent production often creates a jarring disconnect with the music’s content. On “Gentleman” gentle acoustic guitar and warbling organ give way to the song’s lyrics. Vocalist Cole Alexander sings in a world-weary voice, “This old middle finger/ Has grown fat and tired from flipping the bird/ My mouth has grown cankered from spitting dirty words.”
The album’s diamond in the rough is the gently soulful ballad “Get It On Time.” The song’s understated sincerity and haunting emotionality suggest the band is capable of removing the tongue from its cheek when it wants to.
The Black Lips manage to perfectly capture America’s deepening weirdness with an album that seems to walk the line between sincerity and satire. If the tears in your ears from laying on your back and crying over the state of the world are finally starting to dry, take a road trip with Clint Eastwood and a monkey, put Sing in a World That’s Falling Apart on the stereo, point your car at the horizon, and step on the gas until you reach escape velocity.