Following their quick ascension since forming two years ago, Mississippi’s Water Liars have developed a signature sound that is both soothing and jarring, often within the context of the same song. This was evident on their debut, Phantom Limb, with its Black Sabbath riff that opened the album. On 2013’s Wyoming such bombast was largely held in check, providing a more dreamlike wash for singer-guitarist Justin Kunkel-Schuster’s ethereal vocals.
These dynamics are both at play on Water Liars, the group’s third release in as many years. Darkness pervades “Cannibal” and “War Paint” at the album’s outset, before hitting the ready-made single, “I Want Blood”, where Kunkel-Schuster claims “Now I’m rolling into battle / With a smoke between my lips”. Serving as a mantra of sorts, “I Want Blood” and its sense of urgency is an apt metaphor for the band’s musical immediacy.
As on Wyoming, the quieter moments of Water Liars highlight Kunkel-Schuster’s strength as a songwriter. The countrified waltz of “Swannonoa” and the muted memories of “Vespers” verge on autobiography, with every detail accurately rendered. Both are travel songs of sorts, tense from the pull of decisions that must be made.
Whereas Wyoming was a more consistent album, Water Liars plays across styles, adding to its dimension. It could almost be viewed as two separate albums: the first containing blood and murk with the second consisting of plaintive, restrained love songs. The proto-pop of “Ray Charles Dream” fits among the former, recalling the punk edge of Phantom Limb’s “Short Hair”. The addition of GR Robinson on bass further empowers drummer Andrew Bryant, providing locked blues grooves and expands the vocal harmonies that most benefited Wyoming.
At its midpoint is “Tolling Bells”, a forlorn tale of struggle and love that cohesively convenes the band’s two contrasting sides. Formerly bearing the subtitle “For Molina”, the centerpiece’s pain and loneliness form the album’s longest song. Building over time, vocal harmonies are offset by downbeat guitar fuzz to draw out the song’s narrative tension.
The dynamic shifts favored by Water Liars work when warranted and paced. Opener “Cannibal” with its vampires in the Garden of Eden lyrics and the sonic pacing of “War Paint” are both fit for purpose. The explosive blast that closes “Last Escape” corrects the misguided squall of Wyoming’s “Fine Arts”. The abrupt ending of “War Paint” has been done before, but with less success.
What could be considered the group’s hallmark may ultimately prove to be its greatest weakness. Taken as a lone release, Water Liars is the band’s strongest outing, formalizing their distinct sound. Having worked their sound across three albums, this approach is bordering on the formulaic. Seemingly learning from their mistakes, time will tell if Kunkel-Schuster’s edict of “I will talk / Just how I sing” is posturing or stubbornness. At the speed Water Liars work, we should soon see what, if any, progress they make.