When Liars released They Threw Us All in a Trench and Stuck a Monument on Top in 2001 (on the microlabel Gern Blandsten), the world wasn't quite ready for the Williamsburg, Brooklyn, quartet with the 6-foot-6, Australian-born lead singer, Angus Andrew. In "Grown Men Don't Fall in the River Just Like That," the record's first track, Andrew yelled out, "Can you hear us?/ Can you hear us?," and for the most part, the world said, "No." "We've got our finger on the pulse of America!" he screamed. "What are you talking about you weird-looking Aussie?" we yelled back.
Of course, this was before the Strokes, the White Stripes, and the Rapture assaulted the charts, before retro rock and dance-punk -- two hot, new (well, more like vintage) genres that Liars nailed on Trench -- colonized both the MTV and hipster lexicon. Trench was one of those records that predated the boom, and consequently, upon initial release, went unnoticed. When it was rereleased a year later by a bigger label (Mute), after the Strokes' Is This It gave alternarock a Jacko-style facelift, many of us had changed our tune: "Hey, neat, another hip, cool retro-rock band!" And in doing so, we confused Liars with something they were not.
They were from Williamsburg, Brooklyn, yes, and they were surfing that same enormous tsunami of hype that every band from Williamsburg, Brooklyn, was surfing in 2002, and yet without question the Liars outrocked the rock-god Strokes, outsneered the blissfully abusive Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and outsexed the unapologetically vapid Fischerspooner. And best of all, unlike so many of the Brooklyn groups that Liars were getting lumped in with, this band seemed -- if its herky-jerky sound, cryptic lyrics, and idiosyncratic song titles were any indication -- as if it actually had something different to say, had loftier goals than scoring free Diesel jeans, or landing on the cover of Spin, or dating Drew Barrymore or Renée Zellweger. (Actually, Andrew is currently dating Yeah Yeah Yeahs vixen Karen O, but she's cool, right?)
Granted, none of us could quite figure out what those goals were -- and choruses like, "Mr. your [sic] on fire Mr.," though they made us dance, didn't clarify things -- but we got the feeling that, at the very least, they had something to do with a healthy, rebellious determination not to get lured in by the siren call of pop success. It seemed like no matter what happened -- no matter which of their friends' bands became overnight sensations -- Liars would prize the obtuse over the concrete, the provocative over the passive. They would not, I remember wishing on a star, go gently into that good night. They would not add a "the" to their name.
Two years later, I'm proud to announce that, in stark contrast to the Strokes, whose Room on Fire was, at best, a shabby echo of Is This It, Liars have delivered They Were Wrong, So We Drowned, the long-awaited follow-up to Trench that proves, once and for all, that here is a band that will not be boxed in, branded, widely praised, or even respected. Yes, the results are in. When it comes to Drowned, the critics are about as divided as the House of Representatives; while underground rags are dishing up relative kudos, the mainstream pubs -- those that once upon a time wanted to include Liars on their privately charted cruise to retro-rock island -- have accused the band of utter wankery. Spin, for example, called the album "unlistenable." Out of a possible five stars, Rolling Stone gave it one, lambasting it with the ultimate accusation: that it's akin to Lou Reed's Metal Machine Music, the very goal of which was to alienate Reed's audience through grating, abusive noise assaults.
"It's like, well, OK, we've caused a bit of a ruckus here," Andrew says proudly over the phone during a recent interview. "Some people are upset, visibly upset, about this record. What is that going to mean down the line? I don't know. But I'm really quite enjoying the polarity in the reactions. ... With the first record, we found ourselves being placed immediately and easily in a pigeonhole. And so I wouldn't deny that one of our impulses for this next record was to smash that pigeonhole."
And smash it they did. Drowned is 40 minutes of utter chaos. The album tells the story of witches, specifically the witches of Germany's Brocken mountain, and a local village's efforts to destroy them. OK, so that sounds kind of silly, but don't worry, there are no "I'll get you my pretty" lyrics in these songs. Rather, the record is a bushelbasket of harsh sounds and phrases that clearly suggest paranoia, hysteria, and fear, and they manage to convey these emotions with disturbing accuracy. (Gee, could it be because Liars lived through the hysteria that was the media blitz on Brooklyn two years ago?)
For the most part, the music blurs together, creating a collage of distorted noise and feedback through which drums or vocal snippets or guitar riffs emerge, sometimes blaringly, sometimes barely at all. Occasionally a "song" arrives, like "There's Always Room on the Broom," a playful, if grating, tune stitched of stomping bass-stabs, some overly cute vocals, and lots of obnoxious high-hat bashing. But there's no "Mr. Your on Fire" here, there are no hits, jams, or body-rockers. Unlike the group's boogiein' debut, Drown is best approached as one long mess of undulating sonic mustard gas: painful? Sure. Unique? Pretty much. Worth it? I think so.
As Andrew explains, "The biggest lesson to learn is that attention and all that is great, but unless you're 100 percent confident in what you're doing, that stuff can just eat you from the inside. And I've seen it happen to friends of mine who've gotten attention and not really been sure why. So when we saw that happening to us, we just stopped everything, and I went back to Australia for a while, and just really tried to step away from it, smash everything that we sort of achieved and just start again from scratch."
I'll be honest: I'm into this album because it's a big "fuck you" to all the pundits who were out there salivating over the prospects of some hip new dance-punk concoction from Liars. In many circles, this band was expected to eclipse its Williamsburg associates, delivering as it did a better live show and edgier songwriting. But rather than indulge those expectations, Liars rampaged against them, creating an album seemingly designed to abuse and confuse our ears.
By leaving the article off the band name, Liars clearly were intent on distinguishing themselves, and while it may not have been obvious just how different they were from their peers in 2001, it's more than clear now, as the retro-rock bands slick up their once-dirty sound for the new pop markets that are greeting them with open arms. Liars could have easily turned the initial hype that met their association with Williamsburg into big bucks. Instead, they've most likely doomed themselves to toil in the underground. But when retro rock, like grunge before it, becomes the soundtrack to The OC, when the Strokes end up playing the Super Bowl, and the White Stripes collaborate with OutKast, will working underground seem like such a bad fate?