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Liars - Sisterworld

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Artist: Liars

Album: Sisterworld

Label: Mute

Review date: Mar. 1, 2010

When Liars pulled their first zig-zag, dropping disco-punk for the noise-prog of their second album, the trauma was palpable. More than a few voices called "bullshit" on the effort, and after the mostly confounded reviews, the band was offering free downloads of the thing. Both sides had been caught off guard. The marriage of groovy hi-hat and awkward vocals had coalesced around a few Brooklyn bands (The Rapture and Radio 4, but not really too many at that point) and the wider world had anointed Liars as standard bearers. There was a real thirst for something that had the nominal escapism of dance music, a thirst for indie rock that broke with late-’90s slackster strum. Liars were perhaps not wholly aware of this when they went to a cabin in New Jersey to record the witch-hunting no-wave of They Were Wrong So We Drowned. A cabin in the woods is no place to continue vandalizing ESG’s funk.

Anyways, the bloggers got their disco-punk without Liars, and Liars have been able to sustain a career of zig-zags, shaking off and accumulating fans in a sustainable fashion. They’ve tried on all sorts of tones and genre references. Five albums deep now on Sisterworld, it’s easier to see the constants of their aesthetic. There’s always wild-ass percussion, driving songs that fly off in an unexpected direction. There’s always eerie chants. For all their exploration and meandering, they’ve stayed identifiable as rock band. Defending They Were Wrong, singer Angus Andrew said, “This isn’t us forever. We could easily make a Japanese pop record next time.”

With the flexibility they’ve displayed, they probably could sequence a horn section and swinging rhythms and a chipmunk choir. But the results would resemble Foetus a lot more than Puffy Amiyumi. Liars draw their inspiration from provocateurs, even if they themselves experiment more than deliberately provoke. Yet, it’s hard to imagine viable J-pop hooks, even with the advantage of English lyrics. Mesmerizing, sure -- this band is mesmerizing. But they aren’t catchy. Liars records are fascinating listens, and then hard to recall.

That isn’t a knock. Many artists that push boundaries operate in a semi-pro configuration, so it’s great to have a band that can explore ugliness full time, receiving wide attention with each outing.

So what on the platter with Sisterworld? It’s another concept album, apocalyptic L.A. It’s hard to tell what the story is, though much of it speaks from a murderer’s point of view. The opening "Scissors" starts out like a spiritual backed with cellos. But when the twangy thrash erupts, Liars latest provocative inspiration is clear -- this is Nick Cave territory. Death-draped rockabilly is the fuel behind the hardest hitting tracks; chamber music strings guide the quieter parts. Most bands that take this approach would seek burnished tones -- Hammond organ, analog warmth and scorch. As ever, Liars prefer the sizzle of digital distortion, the slapback and overdrive sound pixelated, not retro. As they’ve trotted around the globe and checked in at top studios, they’ve never been afraid to warp a track like it’s been processed through a $20 guitar pedal patched directly into a surplus ThinkPad.

One consequence of this is the occasional song that comes off overwrought or undercooked -- but pointing these out say as much about the listener as the band. "Drip" is soft noise intermittently stirred up by a riding snare, like poking a stick in a stagnant puddle. "Proud Evolution" is skittering glitter and bass over a basic U2/Eno beat. Both play as crowd-pleasers for very different crowds.

Sisterworld includes mixtape-friendly stunners and make-it-stop agony in its cryptic commentary on the passive aggression of California. For that, it will get partisans who vouch for it as the best thing they’ve done, while others will declare it unfit to suckle the teat of Blixa Bargeld. It’s worth arguing about.

By Ben Donnelly

Other Reviews of Liars

They Threw Us All in a Trench and Stuck a Monument on Top

They Were Wrong, So We Drowned


Read More

View all articles by Ben Donnelly

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