"Cops'll smell your fingers," says Black Lips drummer Joe Bradley about the difficulty of staying out of trouble while on tour in Mexico. He should know. His volcanic Atlanta band documented a blowout show in Tijuana for its live album, Los Valientes del Mundo Nuevo, released earlier this year to rave reviews.
"There's actually a vital scene in Mexico, not that you'd know it," Bradley quips. Black Lips had played previously in Mexicali, but after a "powwow" with their new bosses at Vice Records, Tijuana was chosen for the sweaty setting of Los Valientes.
The Black Lips managed to squeeze in one more album before 2007 ends. Their fourth studio showing in as many years, Good Bad Not Evil may be the best garage record since White Blood Cells. Country, psych, and blues are chewed up and spit out as gritty punk, every song blessed with rickety hooks, a swaggering rhythm section, Cole Alexander's frazzled sing-alongs, and an old-school aroma of smoke and reverb.
The Black Lips call their sound "flower punk," but that's only because they don't trust rock critics to handle the describing. "It's got a lot to do with your line of work," says Bradley plainly. "Journalists would give us the most ridiculous titles, like 'blues country.' So we just decided to call ourselves something. It's like we're too hippie to be punk and too punk to be hippie, or something like that."
Truth be told, Good Bad Not Evil is all over the place, between the incandescent psych of "Veni Vidi Vici," the murder-ballad stomp of "Lock and Key," the Velvet Underground–damaged garage of "Step Right Up," the bristling jangle of "Cold Hands," and the freaky rave-up that is "Slime and Oxygen." Some songs make Alexander out to be a dead ringer for Lou Reed, while on others he resembles Eric Burdon howling a typically dark Animals tune.
"I don't think we have quite as much soul as Eric Burdon," Bradley laughs. He cites the 13th Floor Elevators as a big influence and explains that the country-tinged morbidity of "How Do You Tell a Child That Someone Has Died" — Evil's standout song — was inspired by the cassettes you pick up at a truck stop. "Have you ever heard one of those trucker compilations where a guy just talks over the music?" asks Bradley. "They're funny and dark at the same time."
The Black Lips ace that same trick throughout Evil. Alexander rattles off a long list of Indian tribes on the peyote-stained love song "Navajo," and sings from the perspective of young thugs on the short, startling anthem "Bad Kids," detailing with vocal harmonies a long rap sheet ranging from truancy to graffiti to dodging child support. It's laugh-out-loud hilarious but disturbingly realistic.
Then there's the raucous "O Katrina!" recasting the disastrous hurricane as a woman you'd never want to cross: "O Katrina, why you gotta be mean?"
"It's supposed to be a double entendre," Bradley says. "We're not a political band or anything, [but] our guitarist [Ian Brown] is from there. And a girl's a lot like a hurricane — she can fuck your shit up real bad."
When told that it's nice to hear a band singing songs with actual characters and plots, Bradley counters, "Sometimes you have to apply a theme to songs if you don't have any more ideas. I'm a big fan of nonsensical lyrics."
OK. At least he owns up to the Black Lips' anachronistic sound. "In a lot of those '60s pop records, they'd mix the vocals really high, record on tape, and put weird white noise in the background. We'll record some in the bathroom and pick up reverb so it sounds old and warm. It's not as sterile."
Sterile is not a word that would ever come up to describe the band's infamous live energy, which earned the Black Lips a rep for trashing stages. Any truth in it? "That's more or less a myth," says Bradley. "Maybe when we were much younger, like 16. We don't really do that anymore. We just try to have fun."