LIARS with YOUNG PEOPLE at Lee's Palace (529 Bloor West), Wednesday (March 17). $12. 416-532-1598. www.rootmeansquare.ca Rating: NNNNN
The liars' new they were wrong, So We Drowned (Mute) disc comes as a rude awakening. Along with their rhythm section, founding Liars singer Angus Andrew and guitarist Aaron Hemphill have ditched the art rock aesthetic that won them so much praise in the past.
When the Williamsburg foursome unleashed their 2001 debut, They Threw Us All In A Trench And Stuck A Monument On Top (Mute), on the world, they were immediately heralded - along with neighbours the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and the Rapture - as instigators of the much-buzzed-about new "New York sound."
Alterna-music scribes and ironically coiffed hipsters alike couldn't get enough of the band's slinky post-punk bass grooves and ESG-inspired dirty funk riffs. And when folks found out Liars' Aussie frontman Andrew and Yeah Yeah Yeahs shouter Karen O were an item, the Billyburg fairy tale even had its own Prince and Princess Charming.
This time around, instead of a dance party for cool kids in leg warmers, the new record is an electro-glitch rock concept album about the persecution of witches in 16th-century Germany. It sounds like it was made for pot-smoking Dungeons & Dragons fans in hooded capes. Hemphill, talking from his NYC home base, insists the new sound is not a reaction to the hype.
"In order to react against something, you have to know exactly what it was. At the time, people started trend-spotting and throwing around all of these descriptions, and none of the bands were aware of what was going on.
"If you listen to our record or the Yeah Yeah Yeahs or the Black Dice, what do we have in common? Sure, we're all drawing on post-50s rock, but what does the label 'post-punk' mean? You can apply it to so many things. I just felt like the whole thing was based on very, very desperate attempts on the part of people who didn't live here to pin down something tangible and coherent."
Hemphill claims he couldn't care less about negative reviews.
"What, worry that people are unhappy cuz we're not making 'Williamsburg music'?" he laughs.
"People are crazy, man. They don't have to pay attention to our music. You can put it on and vacuum, cuz a lot of it is repetitive. You can do whatever you want while you listen to it. It's very flattering if people put on headphones and listen to it like a movie, but that's not necessary.
"Besides, the label's been really supportive. They've put out really crazy stuff like the Throbbing Gristle records, so to them we're really not that far out there."
You still have to wonder if the Liars' sophomore recording was a giant attempt to take the piss. The band convinced their label, Mute, to shell out for a home studio in the secluded cottage where Andrew was hiding out with his girlfriend in scenic New Jersey. After decamping from trend-friendly Brooklyn, Hemphill and Andrew recruited producer pal Dave Sitek, "who basically showed us how to use our equipment," and buddy Julian Gross to help out with percussion.
Drawing inspiration from the children's books they read on tour (The Wizard Of Oz, the entire Narnia series), the Liars set themselves to the task of making an album with a serious storyline that would be written and recorded concurrently.
"We were fascinated by the idea that adults get so carried away with these simple kids' books and read so much into them," explains Hemphill, who cites Velvet Underground drummer Mo Tucker as a huge influence.
"We were also playing with that Pink Floyd idea - was Dark Side Of The Moon originally created as a soundtrack to The Wizard Of Oz? To us, whether Pink Floyd intended it as that doesn't matter. You can attach any meaning to an album you want, the same way professors stake their careers on making up new meanings for texts."