Thursday, March 25, 2010

Music Review: Liars - Sisterworld

"For the past decade plus, Liars have spoiled us. It’s an embarrassment of riches: four wholly unique and unpredictable art-rock records, each one drastically and organically different from the last. This was enough to for me to proclaim, with complete conviction, that Liars are the best band working today. More importantly, their restless experimentation proved that at least some high profile indie bands cared more about progression and growth than their bottom line. ESG-referencing dance-punk, art-damaged noise, industrial post-punk, Detroit scuzz-rock—nothing seems off limits for this restless trio. And now, Sisterworld, the band’s fifth LP, arrives with expectations understandably geared toward the same kind of unexpected progression. But, wouldn’t you know it, it’s the band’s least surprising record thus far. In any other hands this could have been a problem—when your calling card is left-field changes in sound, anything less than total reinvention prompts debate over your artistic stagnation—but Liars have managed to refine the more ambiguous aspects of their thematic-based storytelling without upending the traits which are most associated with them as a group.

If that reads like a back-handed compliment, it’s only because this band has built up a reputation far too lofty to exceed it with their every outing. The grab-bag nature of their self-titled 2008 effort evidenced signs of progressive stress, which they side-stepped by trying out a number of variations on their own sound. The difference is that Sisterworld has much more integral themes, representing the band’s welcome return to carefully plotted conceptual constraints. They first engaged with this approach on 2004's backlash-baiting They Were Wrong, So We Drowned, and basically perfected the formula with 2006's monumental Drum’s Not Dead. Perhaps it’s my personal connection to the narrative of Sisterworld—which solidified as the band returned to their home base of Los Angeles after years in New York and then Berlin—but as I recently uprooted myself and moved to move to L.A., I’ve found it very easy to identify with the band’s tentativeness. Befitting an album of this nature, Sisterworld is brimming with macabre murder ballads and violent expressions of societal unrest. If the individual songs sometimes fail to represent much outside their conceptual context, the ebb and flow of the record as a unified whole is too controlled and well-sequenced to field accusations of laziness.

Liars' strides toward refinement on this album have a way of developing their sound in surprising ways. The aching cello sighs and chilling group harmonizing that announce Sisterworld opener “Scissor” evidence a maturity befitting of a track that vividly depicts a thought-to-be slain woman, while simultaneously aligning the band ever closer with artistic compatriot Nick Cave. Liars frontman and fellow Aussie Angus Andrew twists his heavily-accented vocals into tense shapes, and the band's deft control of tension-and-release tactics bears a certain similarity to Cave circa 1985's Your Funeral…My Trial. “No Barrier Fun” plays like a heavily medicated reenactment of “Houseclouds” while “Here Comes All the People” builds toward Andrew’s deadpan testimonial of “counting victims one by one.” This strong succession of early highlights leads into the aimless “Drip,” which sonically articulates its titular annoyance impressively but nonetheless registers as the album’s lone dud.

However, even "Drip" proves a justifiable transition, preceding as it does album standout (and 'SotY' contender) “Scarecrows on a Killer Slant,” which slashes around with a fury only hinted at throughout Sisterworld. The release here is palpable; and as Andrew defends the murder of a bothersome city bum, the guitars erect a furious headlong momentum put way over the top by call-and-response backing vocals. If nothing else on Sisterworld ever approaches the seething energy of 'Scarecrows,' it’s only because it joins an elite group of Liars tracks which themselves have instantly joined the art-rock pantheon. From here, the album continues to toy with climatic satisfaction—hitting another peak with the swaying distortions of “I Still Can See An Outside World”—while wrestling with some pretty morbid themes. It's conceivable that the record may not bring many new fans into the fold (though out of their concept-based albums, this still seems like the easiest inroad), but it's not accessibility Liars are aiming for here so much as dedication to the concepts their grappling with.

The back half of the record continues to play to the band’s strengths (the hypnotic, pulsating "Proud Evolution," the provocative modern hippy critique "The Overachievers"). So why is it that Sisterworld still feels like it's missing a little something? What isn't present that would elevate this from a very solid album into something approaching their past landmarks? It could be the simple fact that the band has been here before—worked in these genres and explored similar ideas. But if this were the case, even the best tracks would feel like retreads (they don't). If Sisterworld has a flaw, maybe it's that some material here feels vaguely underdeveloped. Compared to something like Drum’s Not Dead, which featured its share of less immediate moments but still managed to feel emboldened by its consistent sense of discovery and experimentation, Sisterworld delivers exactly what we expect from a Liars album, lulling the listener into a false sense of security and exploding at a moment’s notice. Nevertheless, it’s awesome to see these guys tear into a concept again, and in that respect the album feels a bit more substantial than its self-titled predecessor. If there’s anything left to be said for career longevity and artistic progression, Liars have once again gone and said it for us with another enduring reiteration of their strengths as a band." [77/100]
[Published 03.16.10]

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