These days, there’s been a lot of talk about the resurrection of punk/post-punk by New York City bands. Generally, the narrative goes a little something like this: recession, discontent, back to the basics, the death of pop, the re-birth of the rock star, hard times = good music, etc. At the appropriate moment, said narrator will probably bring up The Strokes, wax poetically about Julian Casablancas, liken their riffs to Television, and call it a day.
It’s no secret that it is 1980 again in so many ways, and thus no surprise that post-punk sensibilities, so prominent in that era, are making a comeback. But when it comes to New York-based bands, it’s Liars — with less money for PR, less interest in big stardom, and more in the way of originality — who are a better example of the revved up potential of this historical moment. In 2001, the group’s debut, They Threw Us All in a Trench and Stuck a Monument on Top is the erratic, intense, and completely stupefying experience necessary to boggle the musical landscape and jostle listener’s minds out years of TRL-induced sluggishness.
It’s hard to know what to expect from the looks of the album, its artwork a simple black and white sketch, the interior holding thank yous, a succinct roster of production credentials, and a hardly recognizable list of song titles. Also inside is a whitewashed photograph of the band, their faces askew, their bodies nearly lifeless.
But that vapid depiction says nothing about the album itself — its only moment of rest is the first 30 seconds of “Grown Men Don’t Fall in the River, Just Like That”, the opening track. It begins with rhythmic, atonal speaking reminiscent of Jonathan Richman in his Modern Lovers days. Then suddenly, the questioning begins, each one more urgent than the next: “Can you hear us? / Can you hear us? / Can you hear us? / Can you hear us”?
That’s when everything breaks. Guitars fly onto edgy, staccattoed riffs; the bass jives in a fortified funk; drums kick forcefully, the vocal tone shifts from robotic drone to spastic wail. It’s a dramatic, exacting chaos, chock full of the kind of political punch that has earned the group Gang of Four references. “Wake up”, lead singer Angus sings, in a tone midway between mock and accusation. “We’ve got our finger on the pulse of America”.
If this is the pulse of America, we’re all surely in for one hell of a ride. The next leg is “Mr. Your on Fire Mr.”, a track that lives up to its name by breaking out blazing effects underneath the danceable, guitar-heavy groove. It does it through a trio of related, though unique, pieces: the first, hyper-electrolyzed clapping, syncopated singing and guitar rhythm, and digitized beats; the second, four-on-the-floor drums alongside straight ahead bass, and an infectious guitar hook; the third, a variation on the second where the bass takes lead, and the vocals spread into an echoing chant. It’s two and a half minutes of mayhem you can shake your ass to.
And Liars do juiced up punk-ety funk just as well as they do monstrous, distorted pandemonium — the sort that makes you want to run around, pogo, and slam into everyone within reasonable radius. That’s the stuff of “Loose Nuts on the Veladrome”, the distortion heavy track that mixes a few bars of ordered chanting with measures of tumbling basslines and singing — if you can call it that — that’s an agonized, bestial holler. Every time you think they’ve got it under control, the guitars hunker down into a sinister, chromatic screech, causing the bass and drums to fall away from any sense of order they once possessed.
In all their delicious theater and stylistic diversity, it’s the simple flourishes that showcase the amazing potential of Liars. Lead singer Angus sings like he doesn’t have control over his own vocal chords and is instead possessed by some sort of videogame demon. He can easily follow up a line laden with spitfire with a simple, amazed wow; his voice easily leaps between moods and attitudes. Pat Noecker lays down some maddening bass riffs, as suitable for hip-hop as they are for punk; Ron Albertson’s drumming can switch between clean precision and wild risk-taking in an instant; Aaron Hemphill is the kind of guitar player confident enough in his skill that he can sit back or take lead, rounding out a vibe while honing an independent melody. And producer Steve Revitt (of Beastie Boys fame) has helped Liars in harnessing their energy into an album that feels and sounds like the impulsive creativity of a live show. The composite effect is the kind of music that always more levels to delve through, more subtleties to pick up, more tricks to amuse and entertain.
But that’s enough talk about the album — it’s time to listen. After all, this is the soundtrack for the times.