I’ve never understood the appeal of lo-fi recording techniques, except from a financial standpoint. Analog recording makes sense if you’re looking for the added warmth of an enhanced lower end. But recording to a shitty Tascam four-track in order to gain “authenticity” makes little sonic sense, given the way it clips vocals and distorts soundscapes. And yet in Straight Magazine, Black Lips’ leadman Cole Alexander claims, “The recording techniques that are used today are killing the recording industry. Humans have two ears, not 12. That makes lo-fi more realistic. It’s a true sound.”
The Black Lips’ second release on Vice Records, “200 Million Thousand,” features anything but true sound. Unless you’ve spent a fair amount of time inside a tin can, you’d be unable to recognize Alexander’s distorted warble as anything more than a cover for mediocre lyrics. “Drugs,” a track with the feel of a broken-down ’60s surf jam would be listenable if the engineer had panned the instruments sensibly, instead of layering everything over wounded crooning.
Sketches like this appear throughout the album, yet they are consistently compromised in order to achieve this “true sound.” Grasping onto the feet of Duane Allman by way of R. Kelly, “Trapped In a Basement” soars with accents by a pedal steel guitar and subtle auxiliary percussion. But the bass muddies the track, while the absence of pop-filters make you fear that the singers’ saliva will come spraying from your speakers.
The music hardly challenges the listener — if The Lips stopped pretending to not give a shit, it could very well fit the pop mold it’s attempting to attack. Just as much as it’s false to throw a voice through a million and one condensers, filters and processors, it is equally insincere to play down in order to make a song more substantial than the classic rock and blues clichés it mimics. Perhaps if The Black Lips took an extra second to tighten up licks and establish natural dynamics, a lo-fi recording could be enjoyable instead of unbalanced. If I started farting into a $6 dynamic mic, recorded it to a warped cassette tape, spliced it a bit to loop the farts and shouted vocals about a “Red-headed rutabaga who rubbed me the wrong way,” would I get a sweet record deal? Probably, but I’d lose my dignity.