The Tripwire: On Shark?, Black Lips and Good Music Hidden Behind Novelty

The new Mark Ronson-produced Black Lips album, Arabia Mountain, came out last week. I'm comfortable saying it's quite good. It's less conflicted and contradictory than usual, or at least conflicted in a different sense than before. In the past Black Lips balanced their brashness/youthful exuberance and their occasional earnestness with a clear reverence and nostalgia for music of the past. This record, while still containing some of that mix, feels more like a band getting comfortable in themselves while deciding whether they actually want to be famous or popular. But I suppose this fear is part of their charm. And a new Black Lips record by a famed producer who lets them stay in their niche means at least one very good thing: people are actually talking about their music as opposed to the lewd antics and obscenities that usually steal the headlines (sometimes rightfully so) from the actual output of an uber-talented young band.

This dilemma came to mind with another band making news on a bit of a smaller scale with their own recent debut. Brooklyn-based garage-rock outfit Shark? (yes, for those unfamiliar that is in fact Shark with a question mark following) released their first full-length, True Waste (which is currently streaming in its entirety), late last month after some time on the local concert and festival circuit. I'd seen them a couple times over the past couple years and remembered them favorably, but it was generally on bills with like eight bands. By the end, it becomes hard to differentiate. Plus, admittedly their name lies somewhere between novelty and Tracy Jordan punchline to me—fun to say but a bit hard to take seriously. That one of the first things I read about the band's full-length True Waste was that its album art was an actual photograph of vomit surely didn't help matters much.

Alas, to my pleasant surprise, True Waste is sort of a powerhouse. It's stirring DIY garage-rock with a kinship to punk that strikes a nice balance between chilled out jams and rowdy bar tunes. The songs don't explore revelatory concepts (aging, abandonment, animal instincts), but singer Kevin Diamond has a way of making the simple seem worthwhile, to near rallying cry levels. Opener "Let's Roll" starts of like a mellow spaced-out jam but builds up to be a formidable force that sets a proper tone for the album. Few weak links ensue. "You Don't Love Me (Anymore)" proves particularly melodic and "Slap Dash" is an old-fashioned barn-burner that sounds like it'd be a real raucous moment live. Aside from the band's closing track of same name, there are thankfully  no mentions of sharks or any marine-biology related creatures. Even the vomit has a somewhat redeeming concept behind it. According to the Village Voice Sharks?'s Kevin Diamond said this of the image:

The vomit is composed of orange Gatorade and a sleeve of Ritz Crackers. It was produced by a member of one of our bands after he had bailed out another member of one of our bands from jail in New Orleans. Their identities shall remain secret. As for why we chose to use it as our cover, well, the album was going to be called True Waste, that much we knew... I had been walking around Brooklyn for a few weeks with a camera, trying to take a photo that encapsulated the title perfectly, with little success. Immediately after this photo was snapped on tour, I knew it had to be the cover.

So while at the end of the day vomit is still vomit is still vomit, I'll gladly take vomit as a representation of constant-touring and balls-to-the-wall lifestyle choices than vomit for gross-out novelty's sake. While these minor distractions pale in comparison to the overt vices the boys in Black Lips have personified over time, they were still enough to create a very different picture of a band in my head than the one that existed, and I wonder if I could separate the two. Luckily, the charms of True Waste allowed me to do just that. I feel foolish for doubting them, even for a moment.

The Tripwire: On Shark?, Black Lips and Good Music Hidden Behind Novelty