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“After 16 Years of Action: Tracing What Liars ‘Stand for’”

I don’t think there’s any question: especially given how awful “comedy” shows are these days, as little as once-venerable alternative news sources like The Onion and The Daily Show, we’ve hit an epidemic age today of people generally taking themselves really seriously and being fully of themselves. Even with this being the case, I’d been trying to avoid phrasing the title of this post as I did, partly because I don’t think music should have to “stand for” anything (that sort of petulance is typically reserved for the religious right), and partly since music is actually more complex, its effects on its recipients more unexplainable, than pure political diction, or whatever.
Liars are simple. Liars are complex. Liars are polymorphous. Yet, looking back on the lyrics in the first song on their first album (“We’ve got our finger on the pulse of America / Not too political nothing too clever”), the sentiment is so applicable to today it’s heartbreaking. In 2017, in the wake of the election of a failing casino tycoon to presidency, a man bound to third-grade party-line rancor and also a third-grade level of erudition, what do we have from pop music combatting this? Nothing. From standup comedy, yes, but herein lies a basic foundational problem with standup: the best of its type is actually not funny at all, in so far as it’s truly NEEDED, in so far as its genesis is embedded within a veritable situational catastrophe.
Anyway, whether or not we’re living in the “end times” (next year’s Winter Olympics in North Korea and World Cup in Russia should provide a nice threshold-courting of that development), Liars are an important band, to me, and to anybody who really sunk their teeth into what music (seemingly) unencumbered by the corporate dollar was doing last decade. There’s no doubt, they’re stupefyingly original, and they have a sense of humor. As far as incorporating influences with various expansions of moments goes, they do that flawlessly, and they’ve got a great knack for sequencing albums.
So will their legacy just be… a bunch of noise? Yes and no. Look, I’m no musician. I don’t pretend it’s easy to write a “protest song” — in fact, these things usually don’t work anyway. You’d end up just trying to be Buffalo Springfield, and nobody wants to do that. Lyrics are only a minor part of music, even pop.
But Liars’ first album OPENS sans-music, save for a couple little feedback grunts sporadically gracing the background. Angus Andrew’s mumble comes in sick and demented, almost self-mocking: “Everybody in his or her own life needs a hobby / To fill the void that work and rent create”, to be complimented later on in the song by an incessant, rhythmic mantra of “Work and rent / Work and rent / Work and rent”. Wisdom and pain are inseparable, I’m convinced, and anger of course is pain’s mode of output: this guy isn’t shmoozing with you. He’s speaking with a purpose. What’s more, Liars BELIEVE in capitalism. They came to America as Australians, by way even of Germany. They realize that America is the best hope for the world — it really is the best country to live in, or at least the most fun. Heck, look at that wall they talked about putting up, just to keep people out. So what happens when Liars get here, look around and still see everybody hurried, miserable and self-effacing? The music has no choice to come out — now mind you, it comes out cubist, with certain things left implicit, such as that the “void” in people’s lives in fact stems from the very fact that in pop music there’s a rampancy of “Not too political nothing too clever”. So even if the average Los Angelean does indeed know where to go for some actual spiritual or mental corroboration (I personally get this through music, sometimes it’s Beastie Boys, sometimes it’s Green Day, sometimes it’s the very band I’m writing about now), the Liars clean up the mess (also technically they are distributed by a conglomerate entity) by indeed commenting on pop music, something that is so passe, albeit, to the average urbanite. With this in mind, what we can expect from Liars, I suppose, is something EXTREME — less an endorsement of counterculture than a bombshell into the pants of the main one, like a big reminder to everybody in long ear shot that culture is bound to suck anyway, or, at least, it does.
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Addenda: Dolby’s Top 25 Liars Songs (08/24/2017)
25 “Mask Maker” (Mess)
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Wow is this a disconcerting opener on a disconcerting album, given that it’s entirely electronica and the band hadn’t done anything electro up to this point! Well, it’s still not as weird as that cover. Luckily, Liars have put weird album covers behind them, and are now cleaning up their act.
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24 “Drip” (Sisterworld)
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Sorry, I know this is early in the list to get sentimental, but… gosh… this is just Liars doing what they do I mean it’s SO conceptual — it’s more grounded in heartbeats of humans than it is any extant pop we’ve ever heard as a listening hive.
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23 “What Would They Know” (Liars)
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Here we have definitely a mastership in tension, something the band specialized in probably starting with the unsuccessful but nonetheless distinguished sophomore album They Were Wrong, So We Drowned.
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22 “The Wrong Coat for You, Mt. Heart Attack” (Drums Not Dead)
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At this point in this album the whole thing just becomes extremely uncomfortable — partly, in this case, since the band is actually exhibiting a sense of MELODY (most of these songs don’t even seem to have notes or pitches, let alone melodies)… it’s as if it only makes the journey sadder, for merit of its ostensible increased consciousness.
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21 “We Live NE of Compton” (They Threw Us All in a Trench and Stuck a Monument on Top)
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This was always a message that stuck with me from this band (“Past fumes will burn us in our bedroom”)… gosh, sometimes a band just comes around and is so heartwarming that it just tickles ya in the noggin!
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20 “Too Much, Too Much” (Sisterworld)
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The closeur on sporadically hard-rocking Sisterworld (which I have to admit to me was sort of a grower), “Too Much, Too Much” doesn’t do much in the energy department, but at this point in the album, you don’t need any more showing of energy, you need a freakin’ valium, which is exactly what this excellent closeur is along with some curiously juxtaposed word play: “We threw jack nuts in the air / We put flowers in your hair / I am dead” (sorry if I butchered that, which I obviously did).
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19 “The Other Side of Mt. Heart Attack” (Drums Not Dead)
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Again, don’t expect me to make sense of this band, I’m just describing: this the interesting sort of My Morning Jacket-type closeur to Drums Not Dead, the only major-key venture on the album by my count other than the forgettable “Drum Gets a Glimpse.”
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18 “Vox Tuned D.E.D” (Mess)
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Here the electro-beat m.o. of the album continues, with a little folk noir which, I suppose, could be transcribed on to their riffy, Stooges rock of yore and work in that regard — that would be the obvious thing to say about this album, anyway.
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17 “The Dumb in the Rain” (Liars)
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Definitely at least starting with Drums Not Dead, Liars are an undeniably drums-orienting band, and one thing I like about this song, along with the fact that like its trusty cousin “What Would They Know” it exemplifies tense repetition, is that the percussion here has a way of refreshingly outrunning the guitars and vocals, the opposite of which would be the case with like your hair-metal type stuff.
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16 “Goodnight Everything” (Sisterworld)
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I have memories of lying around the apartment listening to this song and thinking well, maybe the world is going to end (part of me sadly hoping it did)… since then, the appeal of this song has waned I guess in accordance with the obvious erroneousness of its lyrics, but only slightly — I still have that memory, of a song that definitely, if nothing else, makes quite an impression.
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15 “Grown Men Don’t Fall in the River, Just Like That” (They Threw Us All in a Trench and Stuck a Monument on Top)
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Considering how extensively I handled this particular cut in the opening blurb, I probably ranked it kind of low — indeed, it is the mark of a band still figuring itself out and finding its niche, evident arguably by how as I mentioned the lyrics are cubist, not concretely seamed. Still, Angus Andrew’s wolverine yowl on this one gets some glasses raised.
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14 “Leather Prowler” (Liars)
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Ok at this point listening to this album for the first time in my car I was basically just scared: I was like lunging on the door trying to open it with all my might and the doors had mysteriously locked themselves… there was a spooky winter wind and I saw this giant claw ascending from the middle of a corn field… ooh I think I got me a future in Hollywood here.
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13 “Proud Evolution” (Sisterworld)
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Random story about this song: I once made this mix CD and distributed one copy to my dad and one to my sister, but anyway it was composed of pairs of songs, each of which offered opposite sentiments in the lyrics. For instance, the opposite of this one was a song about not being careful, Alanis Morissette’s “You Learn” (another pairing was Fishbone’s “Everyday Sunshine” and JMC’s “Happy When it Rains”).
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12 “Let’s Not Wrestle Mount Heart Attack” (Drums Not Dead)
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I have to say, props to whatever critic out there first lampooned this whole thing as a classic, ‘cause Christ, this sh** is just nothing if not DIFFERENT, and fu**in’ weird, and this track perfectly sets the tone for the album, after the ambient intro.
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11 “No Barrier Fun” (Sisterworld)
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Getting a little more art-rock here, the band threads a nice angular, governing riff into the chorus of this song, which is about a very California-oriented thing, just wanting to have fun.
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10 “Mess on a Mission” (Mess)
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In a way, this very song, “Mess on a Mission,” is the defining track in Liars’ catalogue, because of the chorus, which in a sense addresses the meaning of the band’s name itself: “Facts are facts and fiction’s fiction”… of course begging the question of where the band could possibly go FROM here and… I’m already sorry I asked. But in a good way.
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9 “Mr Your on Fire Mr” (They Threw Us All in a Trench and Stuck a Monument on Top)
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Indeed, They Threw Us All in a Trench and Stuck a Monument on Top was the only “dance-punk” album Liars ever made (of which one is usually enough for most of us from given bands), and this would be the track most encapsulating of this style, which of course never really became a style at all, hence undoubtedly adding to its allure.
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8 “Drum and the Uncomfortable Can” (Drums Not Dead)
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This song is… eh? What is it? It’s indescribable. Just listen… if you’re a sadistic bastard.
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7 “Houseclouds” (Liars)
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A singular Liars track here by all accounts, “Houseclouds” bounces along as the ebullient exercise in pop that it is… with lyrics about taking pills to kill yourself. See, I only listen to this crap on special occasions, but I could still see it representing perfect record store music.
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6 “To Hold You, Drum” (Drums Not Dead)
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There’s a lot to love about this here exercise in tenacious arhythmic discomfort, such as of course the simple, specific but unexplainable lyrics: “Long limbs / We’ll go anywhere with small hands”… now it’s indie rock embodying a certain nonsensical aspect, albeit a wounded, disjointed one as compared to pop. Personally, I wouldn’t recommend trying to emulate either.
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5 “Scarecrows on a Killer Slant” (Sisterworld)
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Now again, we have Liars surprising us all… and how many bands can you say really surprise you on their fifth albums? Not even Pavement, actually.
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4 “The Garden Was Crowded and Outside” (They Threw Us All in a Trench and Stuck a Monument on Top)
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Perhaps ingratiating itself to the larger whole as Liars’ ostensible “grunge” song, so to speak, if grunge rock is “hard music played to a slow tempo” as Kurt Cobain once allotted, “The Garden Was Crowded and Outside” is perplexing in a sense in that it’s SO FU**ING GREAT, as in I could not think of any test of a rock song this cut doesn’t pass, and also weird for not really harboring any future trends the band would go in: they’ve never made another song this regular. I’o’know, ask them.
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3 “Plaster Casts of Everything” (Liars)
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Here we go… buckle your seat belts! Uh, guys, are you sure you want a guitar riff that’s this SIMPLE? Hey, why are you throwing hot motor oil in my face?!
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2 “A Visit from Drum” (Drums Not Dead)
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Part of why I ranked this song so highly, despite the fact that it’s almost unimaginable that any human being would want to listen to it outside of like the William & Mary English department or something, is that it typifies this band’s stupefying knack, appropriately within this album title realm, to assign a certain sense of melody to the drums themselves — no small feat in an orchestra, let alone in the confines of pub rock.
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1 “It Fit When I Was a Kid” (Drums Not Dead)
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This is the only Liars song I’ve ever heard somebody sing aloud and… well, it’s not exactly a recommendable practice, in any case, but technically the “melody” of this song comes across, when hummed, as sort of a bluesy nursery rhyme — basically the most despicable thing you’ve ever imagined, in other words. And THEN… we get into the lyrics (“We were walking through the park / Down the street from your front door / I jumped the neighbors’ fence at dawn / Danced my way across your lawn / Used a diamond on the glass / Slithered slowly through the door / Made my way up o’er your stairs / Crystals flyin’ everywhere”). For some reason, these lyrics always remind me of Frank Zappa’s “Uncle Remus” — which is also set in LA, obviously, and also handles the topic of destroying rich people’s property (although in Liars’ case they might be talking about destroying the people, as well). Hey, they saw it on TV, that’s for sure. Another question is whether this is some joking-around thing, like Eminem when people are bit**ing at him admitting to actually killing Nicole Brown Simpson, by way of being ascribed every wrongdoing on the planet — or is this actually a fantasy the singer has? I’ll leave you to decide.

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