The Jesus Lizard - Liar
or better or worse, we here at Stylus, in all of our autocratic consumer-crit greed, are slaves to timeliness. A record over six months old is often discarded, deemed too old for publication, a relic in the internet age. That's why each week at Stylus, one writer takes a look at an album with the benefit of time. Whether it has been unjustly ignored, unfairly lauded, or misunderstood in some fundamental way, we aim with On Second Thought to provide a fresh look at albums that need it.
An old man sits on the porch that wraps around three sides of his home, a building full of memories, a building built on a foundation of love and inspiration. He yells at post-rock and glitch to get off his lawn.
What happened to independent rock? When was sweat replaced by thick-rimmed glasses? How did energetic performers ever get chased out of town by stand-still, pretentious noodlers? When did songs that inspire people -- not just to create, but to physically move -- die and become some sort of fucked-over ancestor of self-indulgent, “interesting” sounds? When did exciting, aggressive, simple music shrivel? Probably some time after 1992, the year that saw the Jesus Lizard release their greatest album.
The Jesus Lizard were friends with the Butthole Surfers, worshipped by Steve Albini, and tourmates of Nirvana. That’s exactly what they sounded like, too.
The sound of sinews, the sound of a muscular neck, the Jesus Lizard’s music was the epitome of tight: simple, sandblast guitar lines wrapped around chugging, percussive bass notes, goaded on by some of the most devastating, intense drum work ever recorded. Their mix of Texas acid punk and Led Zepplin stomp may have been a sloppy template, but the Jesus Lizard, despite the beer and fury that fuelled much of their work, never missed a note. They were one of the few indie bands gaining attention in the 1990s who were technically brilliant. Between rehearsal and constant touring, the band became a truly professional rock band. With one exception.
Three members of the Jesus Lizard stride back to the stage for the requisite encore. Duane Denison tunes his guitar, David Simms straps on his bass, Mac MacNeilly sits behind his drum kit, looks to his right and begins laughing. The other two men on the stage also look to the right. David Yow is puking. Within seconds he is on stage, garbling and howling throughout the band’s searing final set of five or six songs. By the end of the show he is naked and yanking on his cock.
David Yow was the only man capable of singing for the Jesus Lizard. He provided constant chaos overtop the rest of the band’s constant control. His vocals were a combination of mic-cupping barks, dry throat bawling and drunken slobbering. The band built the house; Yow fell down the stairs. He rarely sang, but his grunts and groans were rhythmically sound, always appropriate and as unique as the band’s intricate thump. Yow is also the reason the Jesus Lizard was the world’s most stunning live band. Besides his drunken, naked antics, he injected an air of menace and mania to every performance. He engaged you physically. He crawled through the crowd. He poured beer on your girlfriend. He cracked his head open and then bled on you while he shrieked in your face. He would not stand for detached, complacent chin-stroking. The only stroking at a Jesus Lizard show came courtesy David Yow’s non-mic hand.
Liar is one of the two best albums released by Touch and Go. It is the finest testament to Steve Albini’s talents as an engineer. It is gritty, sharp, ugly and powerful without ever stooping to intellectualism. It is the “Chicago sound” if ever there was one. Sorry, Tortoise.
A frightening jolt begins the album. It is just one of many. Liar is a relentless serious of snaps and bangs and “Boilermaker” is an excellent representation of the well-honed force that fuels much of the album. “Boilermaker” tumbles and staggers, but always moves forward. It’s a brief, twisted tale of infidelity full of rapid stop-starts, mewled vocals and a powerful, rumbling break. This is inspired rock.
If “Boilermaker” is inspired, “Gladiator” is miraculous. Possibly the greatest summation of the band’s powers, “Gladiator” is a constant battery of alternating explosions. The guitar-bass-drum triplets fracture your skull, allowing Yow’s gremlin-junkie vocals to climb inside and play with your synapses. His screams are frightening ( “More than aaaaan, more than aaaan, more than aaaaan”) and the cauterizing wail of an ending leads you to question the meaning of “explosive”.
Much of the album follows suit. “The Art of Self Defence” is masterfully assaulting squiggle-rock that flattens the top of your head with its blindsiding volume shifts. “Puss”’s pounding, driving rhythm plays crazily against Yow’s layered rantings and moments of twisted, melting guitars. “Rope” is dangerously quick Texan punk, a yowling, howling monstrosity. “Dancing Naked Ladies” begins with choking, a perfect symbol for the stranglehold that is the song. It doesn’t stop at wrapping its hands around your throat; it shakes you violently and bangs the back of your head against the floor.
When I am too old to care for myself, put me out of my misery. Put me underneath Mac MacNeilly’s floor tom and have him play “Slave Ship”.
While the fast songs are widely responsible for the shape of the Jesus Lizard’s reputation, it’s the slower songs that show the band to be truly magnificent. Rarely does an aggressive band captivate as thoroughly during their slower material as they do while in full throttle. Liar is blessed by two fantastic slow tracks that enhance the mood of the album while maintaining its momentum. “Slave Ship” is torturously slow and blistering: dreary, ragged cough syrup blues that stop only to make way for MacNeilly’s sparse, debilitating tom hammering. Beautiful. “Zachariah” opts for a more minimal feel. A spacious, desolate, dirt-in-the-throat hover, “Zachariah” was Yow’s first recorded attempt at singing. He carries the song, filling in the gigantic room left between the notes with a sad, near-croon. Of course, before it ends, “Zachariah” combusts with masterful, tooth-cracking dynamics.
Even the weaker songs are of value. “Whirl” and “Perk”, while easily the least stellar of the ten tracks on Liar perform crucial duties in the context of the album. “Whirl” is noisy and bass driven, but at the same time utterly restrained. With the exception of some short detonations, “Whirl” provides a necessary reprieve between the full-bore thwack of “Puss” and the mad gallop of “Rope”. “Perk”, the least of the lesser songs, is simply a great opportunity to ignore the song and focus instead on the individual players, their incredible talents and the amazing sound of the album. Duane Denison’s guitar playing was never more forceful, alternating between scathing drill and frazzled mess. David Simms’ bass strokes were scalpel-sharp and just as precise. Mac MacNeilly’s drumming was the perfect marriage of Bonham thud and jazz complexity. In addition, each instrument had its essence revealed by a perfect recording. It’s realistic, loud and full. Liar sounds as if it was recorded in a treasure chest.
David Yow yells at the opening band (Firewater) from the middle of the club and then turns his attention back to the 20-something male he has been talking to for the past five minutes. The male asks Yow if they take requests. Yow says yes. The male lists off a number of songs -- “Din”, “7 vs. 8”, “Lady Shoes” -- but Yow says they have forgotten how to play them. The male asks about “Nub”. Yow says they can play that one.
As the band climbs the stage for their encore, the male hears Duane Denison detune his guitar and reach for his slide. He immediately begins hollering and jumping up and down, realizing that his favourite band is going to play one of his favourite songs. Yow sees him. The male screams “thank you”. Yow shrugs as if he does this all the time.
The Jesus Lizard was my first favourite band to break up. Even though their last two albums were weak and they were working with a new drummer, when I heard the news that they were packing it in I was completely crestfallen. Never again would I have my head caved in by a Jesus Lizard show. Never again would I hope that the band would return to the form they displayed on Liar , or at the very least the form they displayed on Goat or Down . But the sadness brought on by the band’s disintegration is nothing compared to the sadness I feel when I realize there is not one band in existence today that fills me with the joy or excitement I felt when I first heard the Jesus Lizard. Labelling me a cynic does nothing to change the fact that albums better than Liar are not being made any more.
Now get off my lawn.
By: Clay Jarvis
Published on: 2003-09-01