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It’s too easy to make fun. It is. In terms of a buzz-shushing, career-ending misstep, Liars have done something worse than share a bed with a cancer kid, make Glitter or Gigli, or reveal a booby during the Superbowl. They made an album inspired by a typo in a Google search.
The story goes something like this: After recording They Were Wrong, So We Drowned’s first basic tracks, guitarist Aaron Hemphill and vocalist Angus Andrew were brainstorming for a title. Hemphill suggested “Broken Witch.” Andrew went to the Web. “I was messing around on the internet later,” he says in the press kit, “and typed ‘Broken Witch’ into Google, only I mistyped it as ‘Brocken Witch’. Next thing I knew…” Next thing he knew, he and Hemphill had a concept album about a German legend in which witches fly on broomsticks to some enchanted mountain. There were, of course, witch hunts. Now there are Andrew’s songs about those witch hunts.
It was only a few short years ago that Liars were considered the true avatars of new–New York dance-punk. Before the Rapture discovered processed beats, they had combined ESG’s trademark rhythms with skittery Gang of Four guitars and Andrew’s over-the-top howls to come up with something that encapsulated the scene’s old-but-new, new-but-old aesthetic. Their debut LP, 2001’s They Threw Us All in a Trench and Stuck a Monument on Top, captured that black-mascara’d sound so perfectly, and their crash-and-burn live sets proved they were no studio-glossed pretty boys.
In other words, Liars made the Strokes seem like what they are: jean-jacketed debs with no ideas—or ideas that only aging rock crits and 13-year-old boys could love. The band ended up leapfrogging hundreds of other aspirants onto the cover of New York magazine and a host of year-end lists.
Then Andrew got his arm around Yeah Yeah Yeahs singer Karen O and moved to a rural spot in New Jersey to get away from it all. Sounds like a nice little life—until you hear what was produced in Andrew’s basement studio in those Jersey woods: They Were Wrong will bring the backlash. And bring it hard. If you’re thinking the Scroggins sisters starring in an all-ages Crucible, you’re wrong. It’s worse. It’s Blair Witch 2.
OK, Angus: Your first instinct will probably be to try to beat the backlash with love. After all, the album’s yours, and you’ll be compelled to protect it, to mother it like the prettiest baby you’ve ever laid eyes on. But, look, your own label has already dubbed the thing “a record from a band in transition.” That’s a euphemism for “a record that’s an awful mess.” Loving They Were Wrong will only make the indie kids hate it all the more. It won’t be long until you will hear them mutter the cred-killingest epitaph of them all: “I never liked them.”
No, you have to spin the backlash. Make the backlash work for you. Other bands have released instant cutout-bin material and have gotten away with it. Visit any used-vinyl shop and you’ll find records from Aretha Franklin, A Tribe Called Quest, and the Who that you’ve never even heard of. They got away with it. You can, too. Here’s how:
1. Tell us it’s your Pinkerton, not your Room on Fire.When the album tanks, go into hiding with the reason that yeah, you put this really personal statement out there and people shat on it. When you hide, people—press, bloggers, gurus—will try to find you. You’ll be wanted again.
2. Blame New York magazine. You didn’t want to be anyone’s media pawn, so just tell us that “Flow My Tears the Spider Said” and “Steam Rose From the Lifeless Cloak” are supposed to go nowhere. Handily, this argument can also suggest some variety of “artistic growth”: You’ve done ESG, and so has everyone else. Now you’re doing what you really want to do.
3. Cherry-pick the singles. Putting out “There’s Always Room on the Broom” as your first was the right move. It’s one of They Were Wrong’s scant few real grabbers, with the sort of playful falsetto “ooohs” and unhinged guitar noise not heard since the Pixies. Next up should be “They Don’t Want Your Corn They Want Your Kids.” The most accomplished thing here, it roughs up an ’80s bass line, throws in a little staccato synth cheese, and features a nice-for-once cowbell break. It offers the disc’s choicest lyric, too: “Mama, I’m selling my blood/Welcome to hard times.”
4. Dress up in witch costumes. Hey, wacky outfits turn any crap material into a fun time. Just ask the Flaming Lips. They gave 2002’s thinner-than-thin concept album, Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, the Sid & Marty Krofft treatment for the tour. Poof!—sold-out dates with the String Cheese Incident and acres and acres of hippies! If they don’t come out, you can always go after the goth kids.
5. Invoke Roky Erickson. On the press sheet, you say, “There was very little in the way of outside influence on the album. Once we got stuck on the whole witch theme, we tried to freak ourselves out as much as possible, taking long walks at night through the forest, just trying to get into the right mindset.” OK. Why not dress up that quote with: “…and then we dropped a ton of acid”? You don’t have to worry about shock therapy, and you might actually be able to pull off the whole genius-turns-to-madness thing. Besides, people don’t hate on crazies.
6. Get the old rhythm section back. By sacking much-beloved bassist-and-drummer combo Pat Nature and Ron Albertson and taking the beats for yourself, you risked the wrath of the Brooklyn kids who followed you from the beginning. Worse, you pretty much made the bottom end sound like an afterthought. The bad dub on “We Fenced Other Houses With the Bones of Our Own” is a good example. But it’s hardly the only one.
7. Say that Kid A made you do it. C’mon, who doesn’t like Kid A? Tell us that you’re exploring “texture” and “soundscapes.” We might even believe you.
8. Put out a remix record. So what if the beats sound as if they had been banged out on cardboard? The material is there—it just needs to be tweaked and buffed. This is where Timbaland comes in. You’ve always messed with hiphop cadences. Now go all the way. The most disappointing aspect of They Were Wrong is that it gets only halfway to that perfect mix of creepy and blissed-out. You need a “Work It” or a “Get Yer Freak On.” Tap into Missy Elliott’s source for a fab new EP and nobody will remember the original.
9. Play only Baltimore. This blue-collar town is quietly becoming the Japan of the mid-Atlantic. Every indie band seems to make a point of playing there. They use the place to test out new lineups and side projects. No one in the vicinity of the Ottobar takes issue. Go ahead, slaughter your good name—they’ll applaud you anyway. It’s Baltimore.
10. Fuck it, apologize. “This isn’t us forever,” you’ve said. It might be good enough. CP