There are few bands in this world as conceptually shapeshifting as Liars have been over the course of their first decade. What started as a visceral post-punk experiment, with the primitive pounding of brash chords tethered to the drum, has developed into a mythologized state of being incapable of explaining where they might be headed next. Liars are a band who thrive on that unknowing of the next step—so much so that singer Angus Andrew has been quoted as saying, “If we aren’t confusing people, it’s not us.”
WIXIW is a record that wholly embraces that want for esoteric interpretations—the title, the slightly pagan undertones of the album’s accompanying videos, the long stretches of nether electronic hums—but in reality is the trio’s most accessible offering. If not the most accessible, it’s certainly their gentlest moment (see “Annual Moon Words”), taking cues from Radiohead in melding their black hearts with circuit boards and deep space. It’s not an entirely new concept, and in many regards much of WIXIW sounds as if it could have come directly from Kid A. But given the Liars’ penchant for ritualistic abstractions, a song like “Octagon,” writhing in tribal glitch beats and Andrew’s possessed bemoaning, comes across as an oracle to the very distant past or the darkest of apocalyptic futures.
Perhaps most shocking is Andrew’s adoption of melody and playing to the autobahn of blips and beeps laid out before him, which, as on the minimalistic pitter of “No. 1 Against the Rush,” recalls either an LCD Soundsystem single in purgatory or the most gnostic of Eno’s oblique strategies. Witch House has become a buzz genre as of late, and here Liars prove they may have been the germ of that burgeoning scene of pseudo-goths and haunted beat-makers. At its essence, WIXIW is a dance record. The android-funk of “A Ring on Every Finger,” the Can-meets–Aphex Twin groove in “Flood to Flood,” the obvious techno bombast of “Brats,” all arrive at exhaustive turns during the album and provide vivid flashes among the increasingly subdued mood of the surrounding pieces. What Liars do with programming, samples, and ambient textures—elements usually wasted by others—sounds vital, and in turn, becomes a pretty engrossing experience. Think what you may about the band’s foray into this realm, but know Liars dive in with a control and vision rarely heard these days.
Kevin J. Elliott
Typically with the once cultish Icelandic foursome Sigur Rós, there are only two reactions: either you love them or you hate them. There really is no in-between or ambivalence when it comes to hearing four dapper men playing their hearts out and singing in Icelandic, or in many cases, a non-semantic hybrid language known as Hopelandic. Since you can’t decipher what they’re singing, either the music evokes some deep-seeded emotion in you (without being able to relate to the lyrics) or it veers toward annoyance at the lack of easily discernible subject matter. Regardless of their polarizing effect, Sigur Rós finally seemed to be tipping the scales, seemed to be feeling comfortable with their US notoriety, and they let it show on 2008’s comparatively explosive Med Sud I Eyrum Vid Spilum Endalaust, on which they even dabbled in English with “All Alright.”
Alas, with the release of their latest full-length, Valtari, it seems the foursome has quietly begun retreating back into its frigid roots. Valtari is fashioned in the vein of earlier releases like 1999’s Ágætis Byrjun, or to a lesser extreme, 2002’s ( ). The short, enigmatic, pop-structured songs, with their sweeping crescendos and choruses, are gone, replaced with the quiet fuzz that garnered the band critical praise (although not exactly large audiences) in the first place. Jonsi’s mythic voice is not omnipresent, taking a backseat, instead, to the soundscapes created via instrumentation. From the soft, dreamy opener, “Eg Anda,” it’s clear that Valtari is an exercise in quiet, artful restraint. Yes, “Varuo” takes on a relatively steep journey, filled with guitars, keyboards, bass, and drums set ablaze, but just as soon as it begins to reach a peak, it dips into haunting Gregorian-like whispers and chants. “Rembihnutur” is perhaps the most reminiscent of a brighter, more optimistic Sigur Rós, but after a quick burst, it languishes before finally fading away. “Dauoalogn” and a few others, for that matter, would not sound out of place on The Return of the King soundtrack, and therein lies the downfall of this album: the songs aren’t quite interesting enough to hold their own. Instead, they amount to not much more than exquisitely crafted background fodder. Fans of Med Sud will likely be left wondering where the fun has gone. Whatever the band’s motivation, Valtari is more pensive, less celebratory, and seems to function solely as a beautiful decrescendo from their previous five albums. Let’s hope that’s only figuratively speaking.
It’s hard to believe Everyone Who Pretended to Like Me Is Gone is 10 years old this year. Relying heavily on the unaffected sound of particular vintage instruments and amplifiers, the moody, roomy analog sound The Walkmen created a decade ago still resonates as genuinely pure as it did when it was brand new. The band’s output has grown and changed instead of staying in a holding pattern, and the characteristics of the debut still present have grown stalwart and well-rounded, like a writer developing a clear voice.
Heaven is a grown-up record, even more so than the post–New York hustle of 2008’s You & Me. The Walkmen obviously aren’t interested in rehashing their youth or still staking claim to some sort of hipster ideal like a few of their early-00s contemporaries. They have shed the entropic offal that could have very well landed them in the territory of a run-of-the-mill indie rock band with nothing new to offer and focused their songcraft so that there are no superfluous bits. Hamilton Leithauser’s vocal flourishes on the first cut, “We Can’t Be Beat,” would have sounded out of character on an earlier record, but on Heaven they sound perfect, calculated, and shockingly expert. It’s as if Leithauser had the ability this whole time, but demurred the opportunity to showcase his talent out of respect for the rest of the band and the aesthetic of the music. It seems he decided now would be the time to hit one out of the park. Don’t worry, though, there’s still that wall of hollow body guitar jangle, the concussive drums, the yelping, Rod Stewart on quaaludes vocals, the speaker destroying bass, and the Church of Satan organ. There even may be another hit single (“Heartbreaker” or “The Love We Love”). It’s heartening to know that The Walkmen are doing things exactly the way they want to and doing them right. Like Everyone Who Pretended, there’s almost too much album to absorb in one sitting. Heaven shows a clear progression from the ebbing and rushing vibe of that first longplayer, but the jagged rocks below have been eroded and shaped by years of crushing power. This one seems like it’ll hold up 10 years down the line too.
Michael P. O’Shaughnessy
Since settling on the profession of songwriter and musician two decades ago, Mark Kozelek’s muse has led him down a number of roads less taken. As leader of the Red House Painters and as a solo artist recording under his own name and Sun Kil Moon (also a band at times), he’s ventured into many iterations of dimly lit rock and folk, as well as reinterpreted songs by artists as diverse as John Denver, AC/DC, and Modest Mouse. As such, he’s amassed an impressive catalog, but somehow he has never sounded as personal as on Among the Leaves.
Among the Leaves is a self-referential and writerly record that reveals the real life of the man behind the music. Rather than dwell on romance or fabrications, Kozelek instead focuses on the task at hand: that of being a musician and making music. He begins with a tale of a backstage kiss in Moscow on “I Know It’s Pathetic But That Was the Greatest Night of My Night,” trying to remember details over delicately picked notes. “Sunshine in Chicago” similarly recalls the last night of a tour spent in the Windy City. Here, he delivers the record’s most humorous line: “Sunshine in Chicago makes me feel pretty sad. My band played here a lot in the ’90s when we had lots of female fans, and fuck, they all were cute. Now I just sign posters for guys in tennis shoes.”
But such reflection on the musician’s life isn’t always so lighthearted. On “Song for Richard Collopy,” he denotes the passing of a notable San Franciscan guitar repairman, and on “Track 8,” he comments that “songwriting’s lonely, songwriting hurts. A relentless itching, bedbug curse,” before giving Elliott Smith and Mark Linkous, among others, as examples. Along those lines, he criticizes a so-called poet for not digging into his personal pain on “Not Much Rhymes with Everything’s Awesome At All Times.” One has to guess that he’s being a little self-conscious of his own penchant for sad songs as well, and it is this self-awareness that is the record’s greatest charm, as when he makes mention of John Denver on the day-in-the-life descriptions of “UK Blues.” It helps that songs like the title track possess a clarity of tone that’s sometime gotten lost in the pallor of the past, but Kozelek sounds like a man who has finally cornered that elusive muse and now has her working for him.
Although it may not be consciously thought about, some records just seem to fit certain seasons better. The sun-kissed harmonies of The Beach Boys may feel a bit jarring when there’s three feet of snow and an ice storm, and it would just feel weird to sit on a porch in the spring with a soundtrack of Portishead. As the weather takes a turn towards a sweaty mess, it feels a bit off to dial-up a band like Exitmusic, who have now released their full-length debut, Passage.
Exitmusic, led by Devon Church and Aleksa Palladino, seems better suited for a time when there’s a slight crisp in the air, when you have to turn up your collar against the chill. There are shades of classic-era 4ad atmospherics and moments when Exitmusic seems like a lost band from the shoegaze days. But Passage is not all atmosphere. Anchoring the whole thing is Palladino’s voice. She knows just when to growl or whisper, when to float into the either and when to punch it. The music is similarly elastic, with the band taking a variety of approaches, sometimes a little bit dubby, other times turning up the guitars to deliver a terse rocker. Passage is consistent without being predictable, dark without being cliche, and sweeping without missing small moments. And while it may not be the ideal soundtrack for summer fun, it demands listening nonetheless, whatever the time of year.
Dorian S. Ham