Saturday, December 5, 2009

#27. Liars - Drum's Not Dead (Mute, 2006)

Liars' second album, They Were Wrong So We Drowned, was hands down the most disappointing follow up I could have ever imagined. After the band's debut put them forth as one of the best bands to come out of that first wave of early oughts post-punk revival, heirs to Gang of Four and A Certain Ratio's funky, jagged material and all that, they followed it up with one of the least likable albums I'd come across up to that point and all but threw me from their bandwagon. They had made one of my favorite albums of the early decade, not to mention the pair of EPs and the split with Oneida that followed it and were of equal quality, and here they were rambling through what sounded like half-formed ideas, tuneless dirges and pointless experimentalism. It was a willful 'fuck you' to anyone expecting They Threw Us All In a Trench part two, or at least that's how it seemed at the time, and since that was exactly what I wanted I wrote it off. I gave it a few more chances to grow on me, but outside of opener "Broken Witch" and the low rent strip joint sleaze of "There's Always Room on the Broom" every single second listening to the album felt wasted.

I'm going into my unreserved hatred for They Were Wrong to give you an idea of just how much trepidation I was approaching it's follow up, 2006's Drum's Not Dead with. I'd heard the advance single "It Fit When I Was a Kid" already, and while it certainly didn't sound like the Liars I knew and loved it wasn't outright horrible either so I figured I should give the album a chance no matter how much I disliked their previous outing. So I sat down one night with a freshly obtained copy of Drum's Not Dead and was all set to give it a halfhearted listen as I did some homework just to see what it had in store. Within about 5 minutes the homework was forgotten and I was fully in the damn thing's thrall. Furthermore, it made They Were Wrong make sense retroactively; of course it sounded awkward and half-baked at times, it was a transitional album. Not an ill-conceived curveball to defy the expectations of anyone expecting them to keep up with the post punk, a necessary stepping ston between that and the tribal, hypnotic art pop of Drum. It made sense now, and I'm sure if I had bothered to give it its first proper listen in a couple of years at that point I'd find that I was being too harsh on They Were Wrong. Basically, not only did Drum's Not Dead become an early front runner for my favorite album of '06, it was forcing me to reconsider my opinion of what I would have called one of my least favorite albums of all time. That's how fucking good it was.

It was also hard to reconcile that this was the same band that had made They Threw Us All in a Trench and Stuck a Monument on Top a mere five years previous. Angus Andrew's once primal, unpredicatable howl was now a confident, ethereal croon that gave each track a lulling, comforting tone while the reconfigured band got their Boredoms circa-2004 on and became a drum circle with occasional synth and guitar diversions in the most tense and propulsive way possible. The contrast between the two elements is what drew me in I think, I mean just listen to the opening bit of "Let's Not Wrestle Mt. Heart Attack" where the drums and synths are going crazy underneath a chorus of Andrew's almost Cocteau Twins-like vocals and tell me that wouldn't grab your attention, but it was also the overall sound of the album. Liars were working with a rather unique set up the band was using for this, with a pair of drum kits run through guitar amps in various configurations - I don't have the liner notes handy to describe it in more detail than that - giving them a unique, ever changing sound and other instrumentation kept to a minimum in most cases. It wound up sounding like the theoretical meeting of Yamatsuka Eye and Brian Eno, the latter's art-pop genius melded to the former's tribal flights of fancy, and it made for one heck of an album.

I could go into a dissertation on the concept at work here, but to be honest that 's secondary to all the stuff I just mentioned in terms of what affects my enjoyment of Drum's Not Dead. The concept part does give the album its cohesion but it's also a) nigh on indecipherable and b) not at the same level as the music herein. The songs themselves are good enough to stand outside their place in the loose narrative though, special mention to closer "The Other Side of Mt. Heart Attack" for being one of the most beautiful closers of the decade and "Drum and the Uncomfortabl Can" for ramping up the tension without breaking the mood of the album, and in spite of the reservations I had going into it they've done nothing but get better with each successive listen. I still haven't revisited They Were Wrong yet though. I doubt I'll have the same hard feelings towards it in light of knowing the reason for its being, but I can't bring myself to re-evaluate it either. I think I'm afraid that liking it more will make this seem like less of a triumph, though that's pretty unlikely when you look at it. This would be a triumph regardless of who made it, what they made before or after it (2007's self-titled follow up was pretty nice for the record) or how they went about it. It's an album unlike any other and nothing can change that. I hope.

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