You never seem to get the same Liars twice. Now more than a decade into their career, the Los Angeles-by-way-of-Brooklyn post-punk trio have made a habit of confounding audience expectations.
In 2004, they followed up their high-energy, disco-beat driven debut, “They Threw Us in a Trench and Stuck a Monument on Top,” with a head-scratching conceptual album about witches, and then a record of elecronically treated percussion, and so on. Sometimes, Liars were ahead of their time — the effects pedal slurred rhythms of “Drum’s not Dead” — while other times, they just seemed to have drifted off the grid (the witch record). The crowds have waxed and waned accordingly, swearing off Liars forever only to forgive them a year or two down the road once the band’s sound had shifted in a more favorable direction.
But it has also grown ever more difficult for the band to crowd all of its various incarnations into a single concert. And even harder to make room for them on a small stage.
On Wednesday night at U Street Music Hall, Liars shifted between their older, more combustible tunes and the subdued sounds of their latest release, “WIXIW.” That required quick switches from guitars to synthesizers to electronic doodads and back, a task not easily accomplished in U Street’s compact live performance space, especially for 6-foot-plus singer Angus Andrew. Normally a dramatic and vivid presence, during the band’s one-hour set he seemed hemmed in between instruments, denied the necessary square footage to fully freakout.
Liars may have avoided being creatively pigeonholed, but on Wednesday, they seemed boxed in by their own long-accumulating gear.
Space issues aside, Liars have become excellent curators of their own catalog. The band’s newest material is hushed and instrospective, largely abandoning guitar-driven bombast (again) in favor of minimalist electronics and moody keyboard tones. From a songwriting perspective, it’s the band’s most consistent work — a set of songs that’s disquieting, alien, starkly emotional and even a little sensitive. But performing it took extra concentration, requiring the trio to balance an intricate set of prerecorded loops, keyboard figures and effects pedal knob-twisting. As a result, there weren’t a lot of mosh-worthy moments.
But when things got snoozy, Liars simply pulled out an energetic oldie, like the gritty and pummeling “Hold Hands and It Will Happen Anyway” or the feedback-laden “Fins to Make us More Fishlike.” Imbued with frantic energy, those songs could still move the masses, even if the band didn’t have enough room to join in.