What Happens in Tijuana...: Black Lips? Mexican trip led to a better-sounding record, but not a better one.

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Vice magazine and its fledgling media empire of books, music, and DVDs are a bit like a 30-something guy who still wants to be an adolescent. While its abrasive style and tendency toward transgressive subjects in the magazine (“Bukkake on My Face: Welcome to the Ancient Tradition of the Japanese Facial”) have stepped on many toes, Vice has also managed to keep the brand afloat—witness its increased musical output and its curation of last year’s Intonation Festival. But 10 years into Vice’s run, you have to wonder what it’ll do now that members of its core demographic have traded in their trucker hats and irony T’s for comfy Croc shoes and Baby Björns. Smartly, the guys at Vice branched out into other formats; the Vice label (under the Atlantic umbrella) latched onto the already-successful U.K. garage scene, releasing stateside a couple of comps and three albums by the Streets.

Atlanta’s Black Lips, self-described “flower punks,” are a perfect match for the Vice aesthetic. The quartet traffics in slightly malicious humor and is obsessed with its members’ genitalia. (Their 2003 debut featured the track “Everybody Loves a Cocksucker.”) The guys in the Black Lips have more of a reputation as raucous performers than as recording artists; guitarist and lead vocalist Cole Alexander has been known to take the meaning of “cock rock” literally and play the ax with his junk. To make the transition from the garage-oriented, Los Angelesnbased In the Red Records to Vice even more fitting, the band’s label debut, Los Valientes del Mundo Nuevo, is a recording of a live performance in December 2006 in Tijuana, arguably the Viciest of any city in North America.

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On the record, the local color is evidenced by some Spanish announcements and some sloppy salvos from a local mariachi band scattered throughout. (Naturally, Vice is producing a DVD that captures the band’s journey down to Tijuana. Los Valientes may be the first live rock record where the songs sound more polished than the original studio takes, though this speaks more to the muddiness of the Black Lips’ studio ouevre than it does about the sonic smoothness of Los Valientes. Veteran garage rocker/producer John Reis deserves some credit for capturing the songs so clearly, but the album feels a bit redundant: Eight of the 12 tracks are from the band’s most recent release, 2005’s Let It Bloom, an album that already has a live-performance sound.

That said, the band’s instrumental prowess has improved greatly since its sloppy debut. Even in the harum-scarum environs of Tijuana, the band manages to keep the songs melodic and tuneful. Never sacrificing competency for complacency, Los Valientes starts out strong with “ M.I.A.” The hyper pace of the freakbeat rhythm section is a perfect complement for Alexander’s energetic, hoarse vocals, and it sets a proper riotous mood. “Boomerang,” a slightly more somber number, is a nice re-creation of the come-down side of late-’60s garage rock.

The one drawback to being more technically proficient is that the Black Lips, stripped of their live spectacle, run the risk of being mere psych garage pasticheurs. Despite the fact that the band members may be only 22 years old, they have an impressive knowledge of music history: Last month they were responsible for unearthing ’50s and ’60s R&B singer Mighty Hannibal and performing capably as his backing band. In the same way, many of the band’s originals could be mistaken for covers of various Nuggets songs, with few elements to mark them specifically as Black Lips tunes. Several songs, like “Sea of Blasphemy,” “Stranger,” and “Boone”—originally called “Take Me Home (Back to Boone)”—don’t offer much to distinguish them from the originals. There is a slightly boring commonality of the songs on Los Valientes, bathed as they are in the same wash of reverb. Without the threat of being hit in the head by a guitar or doused in the bodily humors of the band, the songs are tepid.

It’s not all bad news for the Black Lips, though. “Not a Problem,” the album’s standout track, is a stronger, toothier take on the original, with a catchy singalong chorus that crackles with energy; drummer Joe Bradley performs the lead vocals with a convincing swagger. “Dirty Hands” is all the more charming for its funny, customized-for-the-occasion mini-monologue: “Me and Bobby went to Tijuana this summer. We rode donkeys in the sand and smoked cheeba by the water. There I got a tattoo of a chupacabra on my bellybutton and he got one that said mexico city 3003.”

Many of the album’s virtues can only be appreciated conditionally. If you heard how bad Black Lips used to be, you’ll like the musicianship. If you witnessed the donnybrook of a live performance, you can overlook the lack of inspiration in the songs. If you are a psych-garage aficionado, you can dig the band’s roots. Ultimately, Los Valientes is a nice representative listen, but it’s little more than a compilation of previously released tracks wrapped in a gimmicky Mexican blanket—look how funny it is that we have a real mariachi band onstage! You can hear every Tijuana stereotype short of a donkey sex show. Who knows how long Black Lips can keep aping old ’60s bands or how long Cole Alexander will enjoy peeing in his own mouth and then spraying it on the audience. That’s shtick that won’t last forever, but Los Valientes is proof that Black Lips can keep it up for a night or two.