People will be happy when music becomes primitive again. Imagine a slingshot effect, when modern, digital pop gives way to a simpler distillation of rhythm, the artist just hammering out a note or phrase repeatedly for a few minutes over simple analog. That’s much closer to the music people actually hear in their heads than what they experience on record.
If that ever happens, Liars might be seen as forecasters. Though superficially a rock group, they have always trekked where other guitar bands fear to tread, melding Homo sapien chants with persistent repetition and deep percussive influence. Most bands use the beat as a jumping-off point; for Liars, the beat usually is the song. Five albums in, and their trick of ending debut They Threw Us All in a Trench and Stuck a Monument on Top with “This Dust Makes That Mud,” a track longer than your average sitcom episode, seems more like a mission statement than a joke; “Mud” didn’t meander, it stuck - a half-hour locked groove. To blur that line between stupid and clever (or arty and primitive) is Liars game plan.
After unapologetically tearing down their own hype with the confounding They Were Wrong, So We Drowned and Drum’s Not Dead, they dropped a self-titled grab bag of a record in 2007, proving their sound could be expanded into fringe genres like ambient, shoegaze, and trip-hop, and recognizable emotional points like nostalgia (“Protection”) and politics (“Sailing to Byzantium”) without going limp.
Now we have Sisterworld, simultaneously their most perplexing and rewarding effort yet. Following up the “anything goes” record has got to be tough, especially for a band whose style and name translate as a refutation of expectations, but Sisterworld feels like the organic end result of everything the band has done so far. Fans will enjoy points of familiarity: the ferocious storm of “Scarecrows on a Killer Slant” recalls the witch-hunting days of They Were Wrong..., while the haunting, atmospheric “No Barrier Fun” and “Drip” harken back to the cerebral sound of Drum’s Not Dead.
But the band does something that any transgressive act must dread: they grow up. No more explicit photos or cheapo videos. “Scissor” and “Here Comes all the People” are some of the best, darkest songs they’ve produced, without the need for theatrics dogging some of their old tunes. The best moments are harder to get a handle on, and though “Scissor” admittedly breaks out in spastic fury, it’s balanced against a downright beautiful harmony between the three members.
The record has few weak moments, though the sequence of “Drop Dead” and “The Overachievers” highlights the two contentious poles of Liars music; the former is all texture with minimal payoff, while the latter is by all measure a “rock” song, complete with meaty riffs and a sneering lyrical kiss-off to Los Angeles. The songs fit finely into the record, but fans who dig one angle of the band’s style over the other may find more holes in the plot than I have.
Liars' music isn’t simple, but it does tap into a primitive kind of emotion that most rock music doesn’t dare to touch, where instead of raging against the machine or always getting what you want, you’re in the parking lot with missing teeth. If most popular rock is party music, Liars' music is for the guy who ditches the scene to wander drunk through the woods. Rock music has to go back outside to stay dangerous, and here Liars go way out, dragging back their finest work.
Album: Sisterworld (Mute Records)
Key Tracks: “Here Comes All the People”, “Proud Evolution”, “Scissor”