Nic Armstrong and the Thieves: The Greatest White Liar

Zeth Lundy

This facsimile of anonymous '60s rock bows before the pre-psychedelic British Invasion. Don't expect Beethoven to roll over any time soon.

Nic Armstrong and the Thieves

The Greatest White Liar

Label: New West
US Release Date: 2005-03-08
UK Release Date: 2005-02-21
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The photo collage of studio sessions spread across the insert to Nic Armstrong and the Thieves' The Greatest White Liar telegraphs the intent of the record itself: Gents with noogied Keef hairdos sport plaid shirts like Beach Boys; big, nondescript black sunglasses are favored, reminiscent of a young Dylan; cigarettes coolly droop from lips and headphones cradle heads. At quick glance, you'd think it was 1965, not 2005.

Whether or not the photos in mention were staged or not isn't the point (though I suspect they probably were, to some extent) -- the important fact to keep in mind is that The Greatest White Liar is, through and through, a record with feigned ignorance for the post-Revolver world. Produced by Liam Watson at his analog-enshrined Toe Rag Studios (where the White Stripes recorded Elephant), The Greatest White Liar is an homage to the mid-'60s British Invasion rock that electrified and idolized American blues. Unfortunately, that's not necessarily a good thing; while Armstrong's songs are unwaveringly faithful to that era, they also succumb to its apathetic innocence and inexperience. The songs really aren't that much better than the most generic examples from the British Invasion's dawning -- think early releases by the Yardbirds and the Kinks, and more explicitly, the many interpretations of Chuck Berry's "Too Much Monkey Business" as a blueprint.

The most disappointing aspect of The Greatest White Liar is that Armstrong doesn't even attempt to craft original songs. As if it's not enough that he regularly relies on redundantly obvious 1-4-5 blues progressions, Armstrong sounds hopelessly stranded at the bottom of a clich├ęd well. His lyrics and rhyme schemes are simple and unskilled to a fault, driven by an outdated, rudimentary-rhymes-by-phonics brand of thinking. "I'll come to you / In the morning light / I'll come to you / When the time is right" is more or less indicative of Armstrong's lyrical prowess. The simile abuse doesn't get much worse than "She Changes Like the Weather" -- and look, I don't want to harp on this for too long, because I feel I've already made my point, but really? Another song comparing a girl to sunny days and blue skies? Haven't we progressed beyond this?

Although uninspired songs can't easily be overlooked, the Thieves -- Shane Lawlor on bass and Jonny Aitken on drums -- could force Armstrong's drivel down our throats with some thrilling performances. The performances do recall bands of the past -- Donovan on the Leiber/Butler cover "Down Home Girl", the Yardbirds on "Broken Mouth Blues", the Kinks on "She Changes Like the Weather", and your pick of any faceless Nuggets band on "Natural Flair" -- but they're merely passable, never exemplary. OK, I'll concede two exceptions: the cavernous "Back in That Room", which sounds like it was recorded in a gymnasium, swaggers well, and Aitken single-handedly attempts to redeem "You Made It True" with some tempestuous drum fills. Watson's production -- steadfastly anti-embellishment and pre-psychedelia, loaded with fuzz-toned guitars and a back-to-basics aesthetic -- is like some kind of an elaborate excuse or cover-up for the record's failure, as if to insinuate that by dressing up Armstrong in context, we'll forgo the substance for the style.

Oddly enough, the album's best performance is found in the bonus track, a cover of Chuck Berry's "I Want to Be Your Driver". Armstrong and the Thieves throw themselves behind the song with a scruffy fury; from the first chord blast, they sound newly (and uncharacteristically) energized. It suggests, along with Armstrong's otherwise lackluster compositions, that an album of covers would have proved infinitely more satisfying. As it is, The Greatest White Liar sounds like slightly familiar covers album; you just don't remember the songs being so unremarkable.

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