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Black Magical Mystery Tour

By Mike Hotter

Liars

Sisterworld

If you’re looking for a good time, the latest album from art-punk outfit the Liars is probably the last thing I’d recommend. Trouble is, you’d be missing out on some of the most intriguing and unique rock music released so far in 2010. Recorded mainly at various locales around Los Angeles (the liner notes indicate at least 10 different California zip codes, with one recording sojourn over in Prague), Sisterworld explores the menace seething beneath the sunshine and sprawl, resulting in a work that is disturbing and fascinating in the same way a great horror film can be.

In a media environment where it becomes all too easy to feel anesthetized to the constant news of war and violence (always happening to what we consider others, so we grow ever more complacent about even caring to stop it), Sisterworld seems to want to jolt listeners awake by bringing the violence closer. On opening track “Scissor,” Angus Andrew intones “I dragged her body into the parking lot/I tried to find her a savior/Right there amongst the cars”—lyrics that don’t provide many clues as to what exactly the protagonist is up to, but leave plenty of room for you to imagine the worst, subtly implicating the listener in some imagined crime. Likewise, the punk bash of “Scarecrows on a Killer Slant” was tailor made for jumping around a room playing air drums, until the yelled chorus of “Stand them in the street with a gun/And then kill them all,” enlists you into some dark agency that you didn’t plan on signing up for (at least initially). Another basher, “The Overachievers,” seems to poke fun directly at hipster complacency. (During all of this, Liars implicate themselves as much as anyone else; after all, they are the ones having such diabolical fun pointing out what hypocrites we all are.)

What is particularly impressive about Sisterworld is how closely its musical form agrees with its lyrical content: Even without lyrics, the music alone would tell you that something has gone seriously awry in the world this album inhabits. It’s filled with moments of sinister beauty, where slightly cockeyed strings and childlike melodies float atop mercilessly propulsive beats. Elsewhere, fuzzed-out guitars play creeped-out half-step increments alongside pretty electronic filigree, as if Radiohead and a punk-metal band fronted by Iggy Pop were in the studio under the direction of Brian Eno. Heavy hitters to be sure, but the Liars have grown in the last decade to be inducted into such ranks. It all adds up to a dark masterpiece that examines the malaise affecting an entire generation, and takes it out into the light, where eventually it might dissipate.

 

Clogs

Creatures in the Garden of Lady Walton

The fifth album by Clogs continues with the varied beauty that marked their previous release, 2006’s Lantern. Billed as a song cycle, Creatures in the Garden of Lady Walton was composed by Padma Newsome during an artist’s residency on Italy’s island of Ischia, at Giardini La Mortella, whose rich botanical settings were created by the widow of British composer Sir William Walton, Lay Walton.

The 10 songs subtly communicate with one another, foreshadowing or slyly interlocking. While instrumental settings are generally favored, Newsome sings a couple, and the ensemble are joined by guest vocalists Shara Worden of My Brightest Diamond, Matt Berninger from the National, and Sufjan Stevens. The sometimes theatrical bearing of the singing adds a further element to the proceedings as resonant, if elusive, characters make their presence known. Drawing from chamber music, folk and cabaret, the songs feel rooted in both American modernism and European traditions. Throughout it all, the percussion of Thomas Kozumplik, with its woody resonance, evokes alluring and enveloping environs. These Gardens are a place that invites return visits.

—David Greenberger

 

The Disco Biscuits

Planet Anthem

Writhing on the strobe-lit fringe where jam bands and rave culture overlap, the Disco Biscuits spent the last dozen years informing the circular groove of live psychedelic trance with busy set-list shenanigans designed to impress its trainspotting fans. (“Hey, this half-version of ‘Helicopters’ completes the one from last Tuesday!”)

On Planet Anthem, the band aim to prove they can competently simulate other forms of electronic music as well. Three years in the making, brimming with guest musicians and producers, Planet Anthem has the feel of a rough cut no one could bear to whittle into a cohesive statement. And though cues are taken from the likes of LCD Soundsystem and Zero 7, most of this low-aiming but essentially successful after-party soundtrack could have been released in the waning days of the Clinton administration. The band’s signature “trance fusion” sound is absent, in favor of moody chill-out fare and a few exhilarating whiffs of disco-rock, with some winning but awkwardly placed rock songs tossed in for good measure.

“You And I” succeeds most obviously; it also sounds the least like anything they’ve done before. Dancepop-flavored by a heavy, delightfully corny guitar riff, it has more to do with Lady Gaga than, say, Jerry Garcia. Some dude named Tu Phace takes over the mic for “On Time,” a pill of pure Top 40 pleasure crammed with disco synths and godawful computer-as-sex metaphors that just have to be tongue-in-cheek. (We can only hope. Sample: “Gonna program your device, unload the program from my key drive.” Somehow, there’s no reference to RAM.) Three anthemic rock songs, including the earnest Philly valentine “The City,” are perfectly good but sound like they’re on the wrong album. The balance of the long-player is composed of pleasant downtempo tracks that all sound familiar. “Widgets” is anchored by a moody piano riff and a vaguely trip-hop beat, with some backward vocals, seemingly leftover from Kid A, slipped in.

Simultaneously, the album is a revelation in terms of the band’s past work but generally irrelevant to everyone else. It’s all rather agreeable and well-executed, and one suspects it accomplishes its intended mission. But when an album seems principally concerned with assembling designer guest spots to prove a band can credibly create styles we’ve heard before, you can’t help but wonder: What’s the point?

—Jeremy D. Goodwin


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