Given the doctored Einstürzende Neubauten cover art for "There's Always Room on the Broom," the first single from Liars' second album, it's tempting to review They Were Wrong, So We Drowned by cobbling together pieces of old write-ups of E.N. and Sonic Youth a cut-and-paste job to mirror the album's shameless swiping of '80s underground sounds.
Not that there's anything wrong with Liars' strategy, especially since reanimated, two-decade-old aggressive art-rock can still get such a rise out of the rock-crit establishment, such as it is. They Were Wrong, So We Drowned has been called unlistenable, indulgent and pretentious, with some reviews tacking on the scarlet M: a comparison to Lou Reed's Metal Machine Music. (That's shorthand for unlistenable and pretentious, although Liars would probably take it as a compliment.)
Far from just a lump of noise, Liars' follow-up to They Threw Us All in a Trench and Stuck a Monument on Top is more like a sideways move into a much darker cul-de-sac of the same post-punk the band was mining before. The first album sampled ESG; the second has "They Don't Want Your Corn, They Want Your Kids," with a sneaky groove almost reminiscent of Liquid Liquid. The stomping "... Room on the Broom" sounds like "Death Valley '69"-era Sonic Youth trying to wring feedback from a Commodore 64 instead of a Fender Jazzmaster. It's not like Liars went totally off the cliff they're just putting their spin on a more unruly set of influences.
Still, for fans who thought They Threw Us All in a Trench ... was the pinnacle of punk-funk circa 2002, the new Liars might be hard to swallow. Bassist Pat Nature and drummer Ron Albertson parted ways with the band, and Julian Gross joined, before this latest album was recorded. Rhythm still drives the songs, but the tribal grind of "We Fenced Other Gardens With the Bones of Our Own" and the gnarled drum-'n'-bass approximation of "Broken Witch" replace the first album's scenester slam-dance.
"Broken Witch" opens They Were Wrong ... with a bracing jolt. After the song stutters alive with deep electronic pulses, Liars pile on a flurry of fractured drums, roughly recorded but cut up into samples, with off-tune guitar piercing the background. After several stops and starts and a surreal narrative from singer Angus Andrew "I no longer want to be a man/ I want to be a horse ... give me a tail" the strands lock together and the song roars toward resolution with an increasingly manic (and disturbingly catchy) chant: "We are the army you see through the red haze of blood!!" Get that thing running around in your head and it's time to go talk to the neighbor's dog.
As for the witch-trial concept, it just feels like a hook to hang some sonic ideas on, providing things for Andrew to rant about and inspiring more of the band's trademark book-length song titles ("If You're a Wizard, Then Why Do You Wear Glasses?"). The loose storyline does have an ending of sorts, in the death-calliope of "Flow My Tears, the Spider Said." (Extra nerd bonus: It's a Philip K. Dick reference.) But anyone looking for a link between the drowning of innocents and our modern-day hysterias will be hard pressed to find it in this music. You would think the band that shouted about having its "finger on the pulse of America" might try to connect the dots.
Ultimately, as evidenced by "Steam Rose From the Lifeless Cloak" and a couple
of other filler tracks, They Were Wrong, So We Drowned feels like the
middle of an exploration, and its considerable success is due to the band's willingness
to plunge ahead in the dark. With the help of Brooklyn producer David Sitek whose
band, TV on the Radio, just released its own exciting full-length Liars
have laid down a breadcrumb trail, pretty much daring someone to follow them.