Musings on music delivered when I dig myself out.

Liars -- Drum's Not Dead
Mute; 2006

Three full-length albums into a solid career, Liars has proven to be predictably unpredictable. Stay with me here. The group first burst on to the burgeoning NYC post-punk revival scene in 2001. Its debut album, They Threw Us All In a Trench and Stuck a Monument On Top, firmly asserted Liars' talent with ambitious concept and execution. The next testament of the band's vision They Were Wrong, So We Drowned, arrived about two years and two bandmates later. Astonishingly bleak and delectably confrontational, the concept album (based on eerie German folk tales) snuffed many critics' interest in the group. Many couldn't stomach such a vicious assault of atonal guitar work, fractured electronics and shambling drums. "Where are the catchy rhythms?" they cried. Under closer inspection, they were merely pulsating under grimy aesthetics, along with the rest of the band's brilliant traits. Now, two years later, Liars has released its third album, Drum's Not Dead, another concept album exploring the band’s calmer, more melodic side. Drum's also drops hints that its creators may be more vulnerable to criticism and pressure than previously believed.

Drum's Not Dead (based on the fictional characters Drum and Mt. Heart Attack, though it rarely translates into a recognizable plot) was recorded at a government-owned radio broadcasting facility in Berlin. The studios inside have been described as custom built for many different specific sounds; in other words, an audiophile's soaked fantasy. It's peculiar, then, that Drum's sounds so startlingly normal -- like it could have been made anywhere. Repeated listens betray nothing about the studios' elaborate acoustics or specifications, just excellent sound quality. Maybe that's overly nit-picky on my part. But it feels disappointing that Liars didn’t push the limits of what incredible equipment could do, especially when the group has made ordinary studios sound like a mad scientist's lab.

The album opens with the nerve-wracking drone of "Be Quiet Mt. Heart Attack," a mesh of razor wire guitar lines and imposing floor toms. Singer Angus Andrew calmly emerges from the haze to utter indecipherable and possibly instructional lyrics. The mounting tension gives way to "Let's Not Wrestle Mt. Heart Attack," which ups the ante on furious percussion and guitar work. Things then progressively cool down; percussive elements stay in the foreground, sometimes pitter-pattering on your window and other times persistently pounding at your door. A less frenzied pace helps Liars pull off its most tuneful work. This sort of turn was hinted at on They Were Wrong, but left undeveloped until now. Molasses-paced "Drum Gets a Glimpse" and lushly embellished "The Other Side of Mt. Heart Attack" are melodic almost to a fault, having more in common with folk weirdoes Animal Collective than Liars.

It's difficult not to perceive this shift away from hair-raising noise as Liars' reaction to the deluge of negative press They Were Wrong received. Though the band's cacophonous instincts flare up from time to time, much of Drum's feels constrained in order to be likeable. Coming from a group that scrapped its post-punk aesthetic because it was too well-liked, turning to the sweet side seems contrary to its nature. Perhaps it's actually more difficult for Liars to write for those with sensitive ears than calloused. If that was the self-enforced challenge, I suppose the group succeeded. Drum’s is just as accessible, if not more so, than Liars’ debut.

I'm still incredibly conflicted when it comes to casting judgment on Drum's Not Dead. On a superficial level, there's a lot to enjoy. Songs like "Drum and the Uncomfortable Can," "The Other Side of Mt. Heart Attack" and "Be Quiet Mt. Heart Attack!" demonstrate both the group’s abrasive instincts and its newfound capacity for ear-pleasing melody. At the same time, I can't help but feel disappointed the band embraced its audience's comfort zones instead of hacking them to bits. (Its members' comfort zones, on the other hand, are a different story.) Only a handful of tracks on Drum's keep me interested on a conceptual level, where both preceding albums had my rapt attention. But making bold changes in style, as Liars is wont to do, is always going to present that risk. Regardless, listeners can always count on Liars' records ready to raise eyebrows, whether through ruthless noise or soothing arrangements. With this group, that's a gamble I'm willing to take.

Kelpie -- Hey Friends, It's Kelpie
Birthday Party Records; 2005

When I hear Kelpie, the mental image I get is one of adults having way more fun a their kid brothers' birthday party than the kids: Mashing the buttons in the arcade, stuffing facefuls of cake at a time, and begging Mom for more quarters. This Lawrence, Kansas four-piece (at least at the time of recording) exude that much fun through their music. It's a bustling combination of borrowed Beach Boys harmonies and loose, indie rocker instrumentation (bass, drums, guitar, piano) and near math-rock song structures. Conducted by the band's more than capable drummer, the fluctating tempos and time signatures feel fluid -- never taking away from momentum.

The vocals are equally playful -- clean and well-blended -- fitting nicely in the expanding and contracting structures. It can be difficult at times to follow the lyrics (the booklet, written in some strange phoenetic gibberish, isn't of much help). In fact, without reading the liner notes I was completely unaware of the many musical shout outs to the G.o.d. Hey Friends contained. That said, the group's religious capacity never becomes obtrusive.

"Fruitful" is a cheeky indie pop tune with concise, yet expanded instrumental section; "Rail" and "Dubai" follow suit. Some songs are mere slivers, cleverly getting in and out before they have a chance to wander into boring territory. (However, the first and last tunes, both smacking of Beach Boys worship with echo-tastic production, might have been better left off the record.) More Of Montreal and Faraquet than E.L.O and King Crimson, Kelpie have stumbled on to an incredibly catchy sound few have managed so joyfully. I know the band had a line-up shake up within the last year, and now the pianist has been replaced by a second guitarist. At a recent live show the band's sound took a turn for the blooze, which was not an unwelcomed shift. Kelpie deserves the adoration that bands with half their talent currently enjoy (Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, I'm looking at you). With a new record being put to "tape" this summer, the group's time may be nigh. That aside, Hey Friends, It's Kelpie is a solid effort, and a good starting place for soon-to-be fans of the group.

LISTEN: Kelpie "Fruitful" and "Rail"

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