The Jesus Lizard
Revisit is a series of reviews highlighting past releases that now deserve a second look.
Sometimes an album inspires our most romantic and sentimental of sides. It makes a gray cloudy February sky sunny, makes crows sound like melodious songbirds of love and makes a love-struck fool completely insufferable to anyone who crosses his merry path. It makes a man sit through that goddamn awful The Notebook for the eighth time and spend grotesque sums of money on dinner and drinks. It makes the object of his affection realize that at the end of the night, she’s pretty much gonna have to give it up.
Liar is not that album. Released in 1992 by the Touch & Go label, The Jesus Lizard’s third album stands as their best, a manic and deranged tromp through life’s seediest back pages, mental insecurities, physical depravities, and psychopathic tendencies. It contains all the hallmarks that separate the band from all those industrial two-bit hack impersonators who would follow in their wake: David Yow’s tortured and barely-understandable vocals, Duane Denison’s jagged and pointed guitar work, and David Sims and Mac McNeilly’s headache-inducing rhythmic backing. Though it lacks some of Goat’s grime, sludge and sleaze, it straddles the line most effectively between the band’s somewhat inaccessible early sound and the stylistic “progress” shown on their later Capitol releases. Though the makeup of Liar certainly isn’t to everyone’s liking – those who offend easily or like their music smooth, optimistic and incidental should stay the hell away – it is the band’s most enduring work and also the best starting point for anyone with a passing interest in The Jesus Lizard.
The instrumentals on Liar leave no room for subtle textures or gray areas. Most songs are blasted out in relentless spurts and abrupt stops, the album’s 10 songs crammed into 35 minutes of twitching agitation. Denison’s guitar is unflinching and persistent, while the bass and drums pile on top and underneath to form something that’s oddly noisy and melodic in a perverse way. Coupled with Yow’s various shouts, yelps and screams the effect of this onslaught on the listener is disarming, especially on songs like “Boilermaker,” “Puss” and “The Art of Self-Defense.” Yet it’s the arrangements’ control and precision that separate it from that horrific glut of 1990s industrial/noise-rock albums that were vomited from countless dorm room speakers not so long ago. There are no wasted or extraneous notes here, a lack of such deviation suggesting that there was little room given for improvisation as the album was recorded. With the exception of the nearly six-minute “Zachariah,” the album’s tempo never really changes. An unforgiving and explosive machine-like efficiency dominates the album, but never does it sound manufactured, artificial or overly produced. There’s also an interesting and slightly disparate contrast at play throughout the album, as Yow’s unhinged and meandering vocals threaten to suffocate the band’s pin-point but abrasive arrangements, most notably on “Gladiator.”
What Yow does on Liar cannot be termed singing; it’s a brutal massacre of anything even remotely soothing or comforting. A lot of cute metaphors that music journalists love to use have attempted to describe Yow’s vocals over the years, most likely because they defy easy categorization. Easy descriptions aside- Yow as some type of street-corner religious madman or simply a stark raving lunatic – the vocals are about as subtle as tire iron upside the head. They’re frequently incomprehensible, due to producer Steve Albini’s now ubiquitous technique of burying them in the mix as well as Yow’s determination to howl for a half hour like he’s on borrowed time or hauling a corpse into the woods. The album starts with a grunt on “Boilermaker” and devolves from there, with Yow spitting out sounds that sometimes roughly approximate English.
So what happens in these songs? Though a lyrics sheet is needed to fully make sense of what Yow is ranting about, enough words and phrases bleed through to realize that all sort of nasty shit’s going down. Fingernails are torn off, sexual perversions are equally indulged and suppressed, drug and alcohol fueled-paranoia runs rampant, murder and suicide tear ass across the album, and the bodies keep piling up. Yet for all this mindless violence, the lyrics frequently show a truly strange and unsettling poetic rhythm and cadence, particularly on “Boilermaker” and the ambiguous murder/suicide graphically described in “Rope.” The lyrics compliment the band’s instrumentation and make obvious what Yow’s garbled wails imply.
Now with The Jesus Lizard reformed and back to touring and recording new music, it’s a good time to pound through their back catalog, even the late Capitol releases. Of course this album isn’t for everyone; if its often graphic subject matter doesn’t turn people away, its punishing sound likely will. Though a case could be made for its predecessor Goat, Liar is more focused in its musical approach and more jarring in its lyrical content. While other noise-rock bands have since been tossed into the shitbin of history as well as countless record store bargain bins, Liar is still required listening for music fans with even a passing interest in 1990s indie.
by Eric Dennis