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(Older reviews archived alphabetically by artist name.)

  Converted Thieves  
  Black Lipstick  
Release Date:
Reviewed by:

I’ve spent a lot of the last couple of months on the road, driving from one place to another. I don’t mind driving: I find it kind of relaxing, especially when I can turn up the volume and shimmy down the road, listening to a good record. And luckily for me, just about the time all this traveling has been taken place, Austin’s Peekaboo Records released Converted Thieves, the debut album by Black Lipstick.

It seems like all the reviews I’ve read thus far of this album suggest that the band sounds just like The Velvet Underground. And I can see where some people might think this is a valid comparison. Sure, Black Lipstick have a female drummer, Elizabeth Nottingham, who has a slightly minimalist style and a rhythmic drive which may be reminiscent of Mo Tucker. And sure, the waves of reverb coming off the guitars of Travis Higdon and Phillip Niemeyer harken back to the instrumentation of songs like Waiting for the Man. And, as songwriters, the clever wordplay and vocal irony found on Converted Thieves could recall Lou Reed’s lyrics and delivery. Nevertheless, I think that saying “this sounds like the Velvet Underground” is reviewer’s shorthand, meant to bring up images of black-clad hipsters, sitting around in New York and being a little too smart for their own good.

And while that may not be a bad image, I certainly think it doesn’t do justice to Converted Thieves or Black Lipstick. I can hear other influences in their music, from the vocal interplay of X to the smooth, danceable sounds of 60s Texas garage bands to the self-deprecating style of any number of Indie rock bands. Much like other good bands I’ve encountered, Black Lipstick takes parts from all of its influences and mixes them together to come up with its own unique voice. And that is a good thing.

The songs that lead off Converted Thieves set the musical and lyrical tone for the entire album. For instance, Voodoo Economics starts the album off with a slightly mellow beat that brings to mind WWDYD from Black Lipstick’s debut EP The Four Kingdoms of Black Lipstick, which was released last year. As with that earlier song, the guitar work isn’t that prominent and there’s some nice keyboard work which propels the song forward. Nevertheless, the focus of the song is the vocal line of Philip Niemeyer and the insistent bridge that “When the winners of the world have left you broken and bruised, honey, we are the group for you.” Although I suspect the band wasn’t creating a concept album per se, this tale suggests that the band places itself in a slightly dark narrative space, populated with disillusioned and disenchanted characters who are somewhat hapless and confused. In other words, when I hear much of Converted Thieves, I can imagine myself listening to the stories and tales of the people I see around me when I go to any number of dingy clubs to see any number of half-drunk local bands.

The tone carries over to the second song, Serpentz, although it’s more of straight up rocker than the first song. This is perhaps my favorite song on Converted Thieves, and it’s not because of the dominating guitar line or the strong drumming. Rather, I find myself enchanted by the backing vocal line/chorus which states in the manner of a guy trying to hook up with someone else’s girl, “Hold on to your Baby tight, or I’ll pry her from your arms.” The first time I heard this song, that simple melody caught my attention and I actually had to play it again. .These days, after several listens, I find myself singing along to that vocal line, whether I want to or not, just because it’s so damn catchy. And that songwriting/melodic skill is what shines throughout the album -- there are too many songs where you find yourself half singing along, even if you’re not entirely sure of the lyrics.

The rest of Converted Thieves pretty much switches between the two primary rhythms found on these first two songs: slower songs alternate with harder, faster ones, all while maintaining the overall tone of the album. Corporate Happy Hour is a narrative tale of corporate cog who’s concerned with money and whose friends apparently want to stage an intervention (and how many times have seen this scenario in my own rock experience?). Likewise, Yesterday’s Horoscope was Right is so happy and bouncy at its core that it could be a song by one of those Athens’ bands that I like so much, like Ceiling Fan. Conversely, the somewhat slower paced Self-Centered & Determined has another one of those simple melodies that’s brought to the forefront by the dueling keyboards and guitar, and ends in a very pretty piece of keyboard work that’s almost out of place in its simplicity.

All of this culminates in the centerpiece of the album, the long, extremely catchy Texas Women (which clocks in at over 9 minutes). This is the one song where I can really see where the critics’ Velvet Underground comparison comes from. Beginning with a simple guitar riff and a minimalist drumbeat, the song recalls one of the old edgy rockabilly dance tunes that ends lyrically quite quickly. From there, the song continues on and turns into an extended instrumental, which maintains that original guitar riff but builds it exponentially into a wall of feedback and reverb. It’s the type of song you want to listen to again and again, if only so you can appreciate the layers of music which Black Lipstick has created. And when ends for real (after a couple of false pauses), you’re kind of left waiting to see what the band can pull off next.

In the end, Converted Thieves is the natural progression of the musical style and substance found on the Black Lipstick’s earlier EP. As the band has matured and progressed, they’ve maintained ties to their influences musically. However, the one thing that makes them shine is the vocal interplay and lyrical content combined with a strong sense of how to construct a song. It’s a fairly enticing combination, recorded and mixed in such a way to highlight all instruments (including the vocals) without allowing any one to dominate. And, as such, it’s perhaps my favorite album released thus far in 2003.

Related Links:
  The Four Kingdoms of Black Lipstick, Black Lipstick's debut EP  

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