The sophomore slump is musical cliché because, more often than not, it’s true. For every brilliant second album that tastefully expands of the qualities that endeared an audience to the artist, there are ten overblown, overproduced bands looking to make their masterpiece and falling flat on their collective faces. Perhaps the most dizzying fall in recent memory is that of Liars.
In 2002, Liars were at the top of the world. The quiet buzz that surrounded their 2001 debut album, They Threw Us All in a Trench and Stuck a Monument on Top, had placed the band among the upper echelon of New York City’s then oh-so-fabulous dance-punk scene. It’s easy to understand why. The band’s rollicking mix of dance-inspired rhythms and Wire-infused minimalism collided in a sonic centrifuge that was equal parts brilliant and inspiring. The band’s live shows and stunning debut earned them high profile shows opening up for the likes of Sonic Youth. The sky was the limit for Liars, but it wasn’t enough for singer and guitarist Angus Andrew.
“The first time you put something out into the world, you don’t think anyone’s going to hear it,” Andrew says. “Suddenly we got a lot of recognition and we felt that it was unwarranted. We wanted to go and do something that we felt made us worthy of the attention.”
In fact, the reviews were so glowing that many thought Liars could do no wrong. They were the dance-punk golden boys, and they had the reviews to prove it.
“We learned that quite early on and when you get positive reviews they tend to cancel each other out,” Andrew says.
The album that followed, 2004’s They Were Wrong, So We Drowned, did make Liars worthy of attention—but for all the wrong reasons. The album followed many of the classic sophomore-slump clichés; most notably that it was a concept album. But it wasn’t just any concept album; it was a concept album about witchcraft.
Telling a story through many different narratives and often times eschewing tradition song structure and instrumentation for a more atmospheric sound, the album alienated fans and famously received the lowest possible ratings in both Rolling Stone and Spin. But according to Andrew, it was a step that Liars had to make.
“When we made the second record, we copped a lot of s**t for it,” he says. “But, in a lot of ways it’s our most personal record because we rejected what was expected of us, and that set the precedent for what’s to come. Project to project it’s understandable that you can connect with people on some ideas and you won’t connect on others.”
Such a dramatic turn did alienate many fans, but it also demonstrated that Liars was a band whose missteps could be almost as fascinating as its successes. They also established that their music has to ultimately be satisfying to the band first—even if that means walking the tightrope between sample-heavy sounds and full-band instrumentation.
“We normally function individually, and there’s not much reconciliation between one style versus another,” Andrew explains. “I think we allow for the difference.”
In fact, Andrew still views the album as a necessary step in the learning process, and an important part of the growth of Liars.
“What we had to come to terms with on They Were Wrong, So We Drowned was that there are expectations, and if you don’t pay attention to them and you don’t pander to them then there is going to be a backlash,” Andrew notes. “But you can’t worry about that.”
Two albums later, Liars are back on track, and their latest offering, 2007’s Liars, has been warmly greeted by many critic. The album is a collection of challenging, yet accessible music built around catchy rhythms and melodies powered by impressive vocals.
Liars might be one of the group’s best albums thus far simply because it wasn’t created to be a masterpiece. but instead to be a collection of good songs.
“With this album we weren’t interested in the album as a whole, so we didn’t worry about taking sounds out of context,” notes Andrew.
Having survived the worst of the critical backlash, it would be easy for Liars to look back on their experiences with bitterness. But instead, Andrew and company take it all in stride.
“In the end it matters how we feel about the work,” says Andrew. “Often, we work in a way that we have no idea, it’s an experiment. When put something out there’s no way of knowing how people are going to react to it, and trying to gauge that is futile. We just try to make things that are important to us and everything seems to fall into place.”
And that’s the truth—straight from a Liar.
[Jason Bugg is freelance writer based in Asheville.]
who: Liars and No Age
what: Sample-happy, super-hip rock
where: Orange Peel
when: Wednesday, Feb. 13 (9 p.m. $12. www.theorangepeel.net or 225-5851)