Holy Ghost!’s last album, Dynamics, still feels a little slept-on, though maybe that’s due more to my own ignorance than to any actual neglect of the album. Still, though, this album is so good and I don’t see it talked about often enough, so whatever, I’m going to say this: “Okay” in particular is one of the best things this band has ever done–it has the same energy and charm as a lot of the songs from their debut album, but there is some new emotional element in “Okay” that hasn’t been present in their other songs. It’s not as direct lyrically, which is part of it, but there’s also a sense of resignation, regret, and a sort of ambient elegiac feeling too. Saying ‘okay’ can, at times, feel like waving a white flag, an expression of absolute apathy or exhaustion–but the way that Alex Frankel sings it, it becomes almost heroic, like a declaration of principles, as if he’s taking a stand for something (even if it might not be clear to him why he’s doing it).
Liars’ new album, Mess, comes out this Tuesday and it is a miraculous work–both a continuation and extension of the ideas and sounds on WIXIW and a turn towards something new and weird (if there’s anything predictable about this band, it’s the fact that they are driven to keep pushing themselves). “Brats” from WIXIW is the closest sonic forerunner for the songs on Mess–dark and sloppy dance music, creepy and menacing in the way that Liars’ music usually is.
Where WIXIW was marked by some class of diagnosable sadness, Mess is playful, mischievous, funny, and goofy (and somewhat sinister, but that should go without saying); WIXIW was, in parts, so bleak that it was difficult to listen to it very often, and in that sense was a good mimetic companion for times when you might feel that same kind of second-by-second despair. Mess is more engaged with the world: there’s confidence bordering on imperiousness in these songs, and that makes this album the band’s most engrossing beginning-to-end listen since Drum’s Not Dead (which is not to say the other albums weren’t amazing, but there were always one or two dead spots on each of the past few).
Liars have been such a great and innovative band for so long now that I think it’s easy to forget just how talented they are. When you listen to something like “Mess on a Mission” (or “Boyzone” and “Darkslide” especially on the new album) you can hear the effort they’ve made to find and utilize new sounds–this is a band that makes a habit of experimentation, recording and manipulating noises born from unending curiosity and happy accidents. It’s pretty incredible to see a band that’s been around for 14 years maintain this level of artistic ambition.
You can still listen to Mess in its entirety over at NPR for a little while. If you want to feel what it’s like to be simultaneously charmed and freaked out by a song, just listen to those first two minutes of “Mask Maker.”
This weekend I happened to listen to Adam and Alden’s (Alden Penner, ex-Unicorns, Clues, et al.) Blade Run Out (or maybe it’s Blade Runner? I never knew what the real title was) by chance, and then I listened to the whole “Live at Blue Monday” album. I had forgotten how good it is. It’s a shame that they never put out an official thing, though this is probably close to what they had planned anyway. Below are all the tracks from the Blue Monday album (which is basically just a really great live recording that was circulating at the time), and below that is a little thing I wrote almost exactly eight years ago when I saw them play in Philly.
ALSO, Alden just released a solo album, Exegesis, which you can listen to and buy here.
Adam and Alden – Live at Blue Monday
Adam & Alden at First Unitarian Church Chapel, Philadelphia, March 13, 2006:
There’s no really easy way to put into words what Adam and Alden do; while they were working their way through ‘Bladerunner’ (“it’s a song from the future”, said Adam), I was leaning back into one of the creaking pews and trying to think of an accurate description of their music and the way the two interacted on stage. There were details that stood out, of course: the mutual concentration on and anticipation of the movement of fingers, the contrasting styles of dance (Alden is a groover, Adam is more of a writher), Alden’s furrowed brow, Adam’s stuck-out tongue, etc. This might seem overly simplistic and maybe more than a little bizarre, but what their playing reminded me of most is a sort of ridiculously obscure Disney short from 1935 called “Music Land” (don’t ask how I know this cartoon), where the Land of Symphony–
–engages the Isle of Jazz in a musical war
To draw another equally strange comparison, I will say that listening to them play was like having the odd grammar of brutely split infinitives translated to music- there were moments in their songs that seemed designed to [rococoly, charmingly, sadly] ensnare, to [bluegrassily, humourously, technically] entertain, to [angrily, dandily, royally] sympathize, etc. (you get the picture). I think Alden said it best when talking to the crowd after the show–someone had said that one of the reasons they enjoyed the music was because it was so structured, which Alden agreed with, saying that there was definitely a lot of ‘deliberation’ in their songs, but that what he and Adam tried to do was “create a landscape but still leave room to paint the open spaces”. And it was evident during the show that oftentimes one of them would hold steady while the other did his own thing- thrillingly, gorgeously improvising intricate patterns or sets of long, mournful tones.
It was a fantastic and insanely fun show, and I’m so glad that they decided to come to Philly to play. Alden mentioned at the end of the show that they’ve been trying to record all of their live performances for a record- they’d like to mix the live stuff in with some more acoustic work they’ve done, and with some of the material they recorded at a ‘huge, empty concert hall’.
After they’d finished playing, Alden announced that since they had ‘no shit for sale’, they’d be glad to say hi to everyone out in the foyer of the chapel. It was a fun discussion, and both Adam and Alden were extremely kind and generous with their time– answering questions from everyone and talking about the Montreal music scene versus the New York scene (they feel NYC leans more towards the abstract– “they’re less concerned with harmony”, Adam said), how the previous tour dates had gone (apparently things were not great (at first) in Burlington, where they got booted off stage after 5 songs and ended up moving the show to another venue, where they played for another hour), and originality in pop music (Alden eventually said that he thought the word ‘pop’ was so vague– “it’s just a palindrome”).
One of the best parts of the night came at the very end though, when everyone was leaving. As Adam and Alden were packing up their gear, people lined up to say goodbye, very politely and sincerely thanking both of them for coming to play and for playing so much amazing music so passionately and enthusiastically. It was pleasantly surprising to see an audience (or a large portion of one, at least) that was so honestly grateful for the performance that they felt compelled to personally express it to the performers themselves. Maybe it’s not that rare a thing to have happen, but it was definitely remarkable and it ended the night in just the right way.
Not much links these two songs together besides a certain significant intake of breath. In Rally, this occurs towards the end, when Thomas Mars takes a deep breath right before he delivers the last part of the last chorus in the song. In MakeDamnSure, the very first thing you hear is Adam Lazzara inhaling. Those moments are notable. In Rally, I think that breath is a sign of impatience, somehow, a rhetorical device, as though Mars has delivered this message so many times to the person he’s addressing, like, ‘c’mon, you know this.’ In MakeDamnSure, that breath is a little different, it sits outside the song, a kind of off-stage preparation for what follows. A pause, and expression of doubt.