Long ago, back in ’02, when a wee chap would download songs at a painstaking 128 kb/s off Kazaa, there was this band called Liars, who had this song called “Grown Men Don’t Fall in the River, Just Like That,” in which seven-foot-tall Aussie frontman Angus Andrew mumbles something about hobbies filling the void that work and rent create over a gentle guitar strum, until his band of Brooklyn bohos abruptly bash out a rudimentary Gang of Four dirge while he yells, over and over again, “WE HAVE OUR FINGER ON THE PULSE OF AMERICA!”
Absolute drivel. Most of the remaining songs off the trio’s debut, They Threw Us All in a Trench and Stuck a Monument on Top (how about just They Buried Us?), are equally guilty of flagrantly plagiarizing post-punk trademarks, including ridiculously arty lyrics (“They threw me out, they threw me out, they threw me out of THE MEDICAL SCHOOL!”) and overly affected British-accent vocals. In total, it’s arrogant, obnoxious, derivative, and preposterous. Which is also to say it’s spectacular—their best work. How could it not be?
Though they released three dramatically disparate albums afterwards, “Scissor,” the opening track and first single off Sisterworld, Liars’ fifth album, most vividly recalls their debut. It’s another dramatic introductory dirge, but no mumbling this time around—just Andrew moaning in an effeminate near-whisper about murdering an anonymous girl, while strings add a nice, thick layer of schmaltz. When the track explodes and rock theatrics finally take over, the shocking conclusion to this “Psycho Killer” rewrite is that—gasp!—she’s alive!
Not bad for most bands, but not nearly perverse enough for these guys—Liars are notorious for the inventive ludicrousness of their album narratives. (Their 2006 head-scratcher Drum’s Not Dead revolved around two characters named—not kidding here—Drum and Mount Heart Attack.) So what’s Sisterworld‘s wacky theme, the one it took them three years to come up with? Per the press release: “We’re interested in the alternate spaces people create in order to maintain identity in a city like L.A. Environments where outcasts and loners celebrate a skewered relationship to society.” Seriously? That’s it? Queens of the Stone Age had the same idea—three years ago. And for a band whose albums are by-products of their location—as they’ve moved from New York to Berlin to L.A.—this is the first to suggest these nomads might be staying put. In L.A. Not exactly the most exotic place, now is it?
If I’m being too hard on this band, it’s because Sisterworld is the first time they’re not quite living up to their name. Being lied to is the best part about being a Liars fan; the element of surprise (shock, really) augments their art. Each album is a radical shift in sound: aggressive dance-punk morphing into atonal microchip sputter transforming into reverb-shrouded drum circles. But for the first time, this music feels transparent, simple, obvious. Though much of it is great nonetheless: Cello and glockenspiel are put to spectacular use amid the vague hip-hop swagger of “No Barrier Fun,” while “Scarecrows on a Killer Slant” is a wiry assault, whirlwinds of guitar noise segmented into rigid patterns as Andrew howls Iggy-esque put-ons. “The Overachievers,” meanwhile, comes off like the Yardbirds covering the Cramps, if such time-traveling debauchery existed.
The rest of Sisterworld, alas, attempts to stretch out the plodding, beatless “Scissor” prelude into whole “songs.” Maybe the surprise here is that there is no surprise. But that wouldn’t really be like Liars, would it?
Liars play the Music Hall of Williamsburg April 18