Thursday, March 11, 2010

Listen to the Album That Recorded Itself

What do I like most about Liars? Since their 2001 debut They Threw Us All in a Trench and Stuck a Monument on Top, the band has mined a form of groove-laden post-punk so schizophrenic that the band's imitators are basically non-existent--it's not that no one wants to sound like Liars, but pinpointing any singular characteristic of their music lies outside the power of even the most lateral of thinkers. I called Liars the band of the decade a while back and didn't leave anything in the way of commentary, and part of the reason for that was because they really pose a substantial problem for the average adjective-dependent critic sick of leaving it at "post-punk" or "experimental art rock." I want to really delve into the musical character of Angus Andrew and co., and I'm in luck, because their new album Sisterworld is not only pretty good, but also easier to describe than its predecessors. Still, be prepared for a few meaningless critical buzz words that can't be avoided.

Here's some commentary on Sisterworld. And keep in mind that I still like to listen to their 30-minute track "This Dust Makes That Mud" for fun, so this post may be aimed at a very small niche that enjoys the same.

1. "Scissor." One of the best non-musical things about this new album--Liars have clearly taken a cue from their last eponymous album and have basically jettisoned the long, inscrutable titles of the past. Luckily, "Scissor" is as incisive a title as it is a piece of clear-minded AB songwriting. Most Liars tracks can be divided into either dirges or rock monsters with dirge elements, and this is definitely something of the latter category. The first 1:40 utilizes the classic Liars trick of building a slow track both beguiling in its instrumentation and unsettling in its presentation. Then, like any good modern rock song, the band comes down hard on a riff/groove combo that is as clunky as it is brief. Then the slower part A picks off as if part B never happened, and then we're back to part B. End of song. Elemental, yes, and primal, and worthy of serious headbanging--all of these points and more make this song classic Liars. Were it not for this song, it would be the best ever written on the subject of hand-operated cutting instruments.

2. "No Barrier Fun." Remember "Houseclouds," the second track off Liars' last album? Few segues have been as jarring as between that and "Plaster Casts of Everything," and I wondered if I had accidentally picked up a Beck album by mistake. So to say that "No Barrier Fun" is the logical sonic continuation of "Scissor" is to say either that Liars have matured or become sadly typical as track programmers. Anchored by a Pixies-esque bass line and two scattered, interlocking grooves, this track is the sort of moody fun I like to put on the dark. There's also a stray violin about, making things sound a bit like Modest Mouse for a while, but once you realize that the melody is going nowhere, the groove becomes much more fascinating, with the journey really starting at 0:39. Also: glockenspiel?

3. "Here Comes All the People." The first guitar-oriented track, featuring a moody, repetitive lead line that appears to be briefly strangled by Bernard Herrmann strings at 1:05. There's also a piano somewhere in here, and the overall instrumentation evokes a feeling of something really implosive and unpleasant happening simultaneously. We finally get a payoff during the last 20 seconds, as what once seemed to hint at madness emerges as full-blown primitivism. Not Liars' most impressive songwriting moment, but here, for the first time since 2001, a consistent mood is finally established.

4. "Drip." Like "Scissor," this begins with some eerie ambient noises accompanied by Angus Andrew's chanting. Unlike "Scissor," we are presented with a tinny drum machine-sounding rhythmic accompaniment that sort of floats in and out of the arrangement whenever it feels like it. At this point the average listener is liable to wonder if Liars are laying on the mood too thick, like in They Were Wrong So We Drowned. At this point, we are in need of a Liars rocker before we drown in gooey dirge.

5. "Scarecrows On A Killer Slant." And on cue, we have ourselves a riff monster. Liars have a history of pulling off alarmingly simple-sounding riffs by virtue of the aggression embedded, as well as the likely rhythmic off-turns. Something else to note: this is a strangely quiet-sounding track for such an aggressive performance. Unlike virtually any of their modern rock peers, Liars defy our expectations to turn up the volume whenever distorted guitars are at the fore. The final, looping electronic pulse is, again, proof that atmosphere trumps the rock once again.

6. "I Still Can See An Outside World." Angus Andrew really likes breaking out the falsetto on this album. Like "Scissor," this is vintage Liars of the quietLOUDquiet variety. But like the previous track, the loud component is all fuzzy guitars and cymbal crashes but still oddly muted as a performance. The connecting tissue is how Angus Andrew's vocals remain much louder than everything else, and the way he harmonizes with himself is scarier than anything any guitar could pull off.

7. "Proud Evolution." This is where it starts getting really hard to talk about this album without repeating myself. "Proud Evolution" stands apart from the rest of the pack due to its Krautrock beat and some guitar work that sounds more like a doppler radar than any conventional tune. Being the longest song on the album, you expect tension and release, but I guess once again Liars knew what I was looking for and did the exact opposite.

8. "Drop Dead." Subdued and atonal, anchored by guitar work amateurish even by Liars standards, "Drop Dead" is filled with scary noises and not much more. Just when it seems to be going somewhere, it doesn't. It's a subdued, repetitive performance that just sort of ends in lieu of anything better to do.

9. "The Overachievers." Thankfully "The Overachievers" picks up the pace, in a manner that calls back similar outbursts of noise like "Plaster Casts of Everything." This is the Liars I love most--banging out the simplest groove imaginable and interjecting noise whenever the pace seems lacking. The shouted vocals also help to pick things up a bit, making this the most brisk rocker on the album, and one of the most enjoyable performances. Also nice to hear something resembling normal lead guitar here. As long as they don't make a habit.

10. "Goodnight Everything." This is the other Liars I like the most, slow and ponderous yet intense and melodic. The other surprise here: horns! I just love the intense, inscrutable drama emanating from the band's performance, sounding like the perfect tune to play the day evil has finally won (I'm keeping my iTunes calendar open for a November 2012 Palin victory).

11. "Too Much, Too Much." A bit of a downer as a closer, and I must admit I was distracted by severe melodic similarities between this song and Wire's "Practice Makes Perfect." Which makes sense, because why not--there is a line to be drawn between the independent post-punk spirit of Wire and Liars. Whether or not this was a deliberate homage, I don't know, but the song is otherwise treading on territory done better elsewhere on this album. Maybe the title is too accurate.

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