All photos: Katherine Gaines
A puzzling critique I often hear is that certain bands or artists release the same album over and over again, usually with diminishing returns. Artist attracts fans because of their unique sound. You become used to the singer’s voice, how the drums are recorded, the certain tone of guitar. Too much of the same and artists get derided for rehashing earlier (and often better) works. Some examples include Interpol, The Strokes, Death Cab For Cutie, and Kings of Leon.
But if a band takes too sharp of a turn, they mislead fans. Such examples include Smashing Pumpkins’ electro-acoustic Adore and Kanye West’s 808s & Heartbreak. While Yeezy’s ode to auto-tune was the chrysalis for his opus My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, Corgan Inc. never recovered from the critical & commercial backlash from deviating from their bombastic alt rock sound. It’s a catch-22: innovate or replicate?
Liars have vacillated wildly between each of their six releases, touching upon dance-punk, rock, ambient drone, and noise. On their most recent release WIXIW (pronounced “Wish you”), the Los Angeles trio again mixes it up, experimenting with synthesizers and abstract electronic sounds. Comparing this shift to former tourmate Radiohead’s The King Of Limbs is inevitable. But while TKOL left many Radiohead fans bewildered before finally accepting the glitch-inspired tunes, Liars fans know the only thing consistent about this band—besides frontman Angus Andrew’s evocative delivery—is their purposeful inconsistency.
The last time I saw Liars was 2008 at the 9:30 Club. The club was nearly empty due to a blizzard. Opener No Age arrived late, acknowledging that they almost died as they rocketed down from New York on a slick I-95. Andrew was simultaneously sick and recovering from a hurt back, being forced to stay seated on a stool instead of ghouling about like a boogeyman. The show as mediocre. It may have been attributed to Andrew’s condition, the sparse crowd or the terrible weather, but I figured Liars, a band I had heard from so many was remarkable live, simply had an off-night.
Lucky for me, Wednesday’s performance was remarkably better.
Opener Unknown Mortal Orchestra, a three-piece from Portland, translated their lo-fi aesthetic to the cramped U St. Music Hall Stage. I admit that last year’s self-titled album never hooked me despite repeated listens—I’ll give something a few chances before outright declaring it sucks—but I also understand that some bands are just better on the stage than on wax. I’ll grant you that UMO sound better live than their recordings, but they still don’t do it for me.
UMO should appeal to fans of White Denim and Tame Impala, except that those bands are vastly superior. Singer/guitarist’s Ruban Nielson grating, androgynous voice floated above their psychedelic- cum-indie rock sounds. But except for the standouts like “Ffunny Ffriends” and “How Can You Luv Me,” UMO provided too many clunkers to sate the hungry crowd at this matinee show.
Liars came out about 8:40 in the evening. Drummer Julian Gross was seated in the back in a white suit, hair curled in braids, while multi-instrumentalist Aaron Hemphill, dressed in a black suit, took hold among a series of synths and guitars to the right of the sage. The duo started up “The Exact Colour of Doubt” before the massive Andrew, also dressed in black with his trademark greasy frazzled hair, came out and started his haunting singing: “I’ll always be your friend / I’ll never let you down.”
It’s fitting that Liars would play U St. Music Hall instead of other venues for this tour. Most of the hour-long performance touched upon the electronic material from WIXIW. The title-track lent itself to much knob-twiddling as it transitioned from its trippy first-half to its pulverizing finish, as Andrew sang through the hazy production, “Now I say it’s not enough / I wish you were here with me.” The digital snarl of “Brats” was the evening’s highlight, whipping the young crowd into frenzy reminiscent of their early dance-punk classics like “Mr Your On Fire Mr” and “We Live NE Of Compton” (neither of which they played). Current single “No. 1 Against the Rush” was also well-received, an intelligent counterpoint to “Brats” chaos.
Even though I feel that WIXIW is the band’s second strongest album (after, of course, Drum’s Not Dead) , the few early songs they chose to play were all hits. Andrew introduced his band to the audience before the third song of the evening, saying, “There’s only one thing I want to talk about when I’m in Washington DC,” cutting off his statement with a guttural howl prior to delving into “Let’s Not Wrestle Mt. Heart Attack.” As Gross and Hemphill pounded away on tom-toms, Andrew continued his hoots and howls to the delight of the anxious crowd.
“Scarecrows on a Killer Slant” was the evening’s first true punk song, and the audience reacted accordingly, moshing in front of the small stage. It was a poor decision by yours truly to wear opened toed shoes. The final song of the set, “Pillar Were Hollow and Filled With Candy So We Tore Them Down” (from an early EP) registered the same manic energy that the band was once heralded for in their early NYC days.
The band returned to the stage for two more songs. The droning “Be Quiet Mt. Heart Attack!” lulled the crowd into a false sense of security before abruptly transferring into “Plaster Casts of Everything,” arguably the band’s most destructive song. If you weren’t smashing into other sweaty bodies before, you certainly were now. I’ve been to a good twenty or so shows at U St Music Hall, but only Liars could get a room full of kids to crowd surf at a dance club.
- Unknown Mortal Orchestra