Paradise Rock Club
Feb. 8, 2008
I don’t think anyone will ever understand Liars. I was fairly certain that I had a decent grasp on them for a while, but all that was blown to pieces this past summer when they released their self-titled fourth album. To call that album a disappointment would be generous; to call it a disaster might be more appropriate. Their 2006 album Drum’s Not Dead was by far my favorite record of the year, combining droning guitar anti-melodies, terrifying lyrics, and — most importantly — unrelenting, pounding drums layered upon more and more drums to yield one of the heaviest records I had ever heard. Most of the tracks eschew traditional rock song structures in favor of a more stream-of-consciousness approach that is just as unsettling as the music. And so when Liars came at me with a bunch of mediocre three-chord pop songs, I almost had to cry.
But one bad release wasn’t going to keep me from seeing one of the most intense live bands in existence. In addition to frequently changing musical styles, Liars are also notorious for frequently changing members, so when the three flannel-clad instrumentalists took the stage, the audience didn’t know if they were the band or the roadies. There was no applause until Angus Andrew, the tall, scruffy, and certainly unmistakable Australian singer emerged. After Andrew settled into his chair (he recently suffered a serious back injury), the band launched into “Leather Prowler,” a restrained noise track from Liars that sounds insincere in its attempt to replicate the sound of 2004’s They Were Wrong, So We Drowned. The night didn’t look good as they went into “Houseclouds,” quite possibly the most regrettable song in the entire Liars catalog. Also from Liars, “Houseclouds” does everything it can to replicate Beck’s most recent output. It’s not a terrible pop song, but it certainly doesn’t belong on the same setlist as “We Fenced Other Houses with the Bones of Our Own.” At least the cheesy synth line was played on a reverb-soaked guitar, making the song slightly easier to swallow.
That said, “We Fenced Other Houses” was fantastic. The slow-burning cauldron sing-a-long built over the course of five hypnotic minutes until Andrew invoked the audience to complete the call-and-response: “Fly, fly, the devil’s in your eye, shoot, shoot — WE’RE DOOMED, WE’RE DOOMED!” Meanwhile, “Be Quiet Mt. Heart Attack!,” normally a two-chord minor key drone piece that opens Drum’s by building up to the chaos that follows, was dramatically re-envisioned for live performance. The tempo was dropped to about half that of the original and guitarist Aaron Hemphill beautifully mixed the melody of “Drum Gets a Glimpse” into the drone.
After another few lackluster Liars numbers, the band began the centerpiece of the evening, “A Visit from Drum” blended with “Drum and the Uncomfortable Can.” While drummer Julian Gross seemed at least a little bored playing standard rock beats during “Clear Island” and “Freak Out,” he was clearly having the time of his life pounding away during these Drum’s tracks with Hemphill joining him on auxiliary percussion. The two were perfectly coordinated, nailing every tom, rim, and cymbal hit in the songs while throwing in plenty of surprises. “A Visit” was a perfect introduction to “Uncomfortable Can,” which is undoubtedly the most terrifying and exhilarating song I’ve ever heard performed. Gross and Hemphill pummeled the drums to bits while Andrew shouted out perfectly metered instructions for killing someone and ditching the evidence, causing the audience to erupt for the first time. I swear I had nightmares that night about Andrew repeating “Use a tiny screw, leave it in the wrist” as the song ended.
“Plaster Casts of Everything,” one of the better songs from Liars, was the only song that got the entire audience moving. Andrew introduced it by saying, “We’re going to play this so loud that your moms are going to hear this back home.” For what it was — four minutes of balls-out rawk — it was definitely fun. Liars finished the set with their most beautiful song, the meditative ambient pop of “The Other Side of Mt. Heart Attack.” Drum’s is ostensibly a concept album featuring the characters Drum and Mt. Heart Attack, who represent (respectively) the primal and cerebral aspects of the band members’ personalities. So with a song as peaceful as “The Other Side,” it’s easy to get caught up in the background vocal “ahhhhs,” the bells, the delicate guitar arpeggios, and Andrew’s promise that he “can always be found.” I certainly got caught up in the moment, but at the end Andrew cocked his head to one side, smiled an enormous grin, and gave a double thumbs-up just to show that he doesn’t take it too seriously.