My All-Timers: 27. The Jesus Lizard — Liar
When I started Tyborn Jig in 2005, I wasn’t quite sure what I wanted it to be. As I look back now, I know that by the time I heard The Jesus Lizard’s Liar, I had one word swirling around my head: “uncompromising.” Whatever other bands were doing to play nice and appeal to little teenagers and get the crowd clapping along with them, I didn’t want to do any of that. I wanted to make music that played by no rules other than that of myself and my band members, and we were going to blow people away either with our sound or our attitude. Years of listening to punk rock and hardcore had instilled this attitude in me, but The Jesus Lizard helped me realize that my band could be something different altogether.
After all, The Jesus Lizard certainly understood how to stand out. They came of age at a time when all over the American underground indie scene, there were bands who sounded noisy and untamed, yet witty and educated. Amphetamine Reptile and Touch and Go were labels who trafficked in such craziness, and The Jesus Lizard signed to the latter. Wikipedia lists them as “noise rock,” and though that term might be slightly reductive, I suppose it fits.
What else could you call the wild rumble of “Boilermaker?” That song opens the record as if a speeding car whizzed by you but grabbed you and threw you in, and then started veering all over the road. The rhythm in the verses is a 4/4 beat but played like it’s in a dryer machine. When it does even out, Duane Denison then plays a high-pitched two-note riff that pierces the eardrum with glee, as David Wm. Sims plays a bass riff that has absolutely nothing to do with Denison’s riff, yet sounds like exactly what he should be doing.
That’s the glory of The Jesus Lizard’s songwriting: the dueling nature of guitar and bass, quite often doing something totally different from each other. It seems like it shouldn’t work, since almost all rock songs need guitar and bass to be in lock-step with each other so things don’t fall apart, and also so people will have a reliable groove to which they can bop. But this formula is proven time and time again — see “Puss” for an example of Denison playing, at its root, a very basic two-chord progression while Sims plays like, a nine-note riff that at first sounds wrong, but the second time you hear it you realize he’s playing in the same scale as Denison, and that he created a memorable riff that makes the song listenable.
What some might not find quite so listenable are the vocals of David Yow. I once was playing Liar when I lived with my friends Sam and Clint, and despite being well-versed fans of weird music, even they were like, “What are you listening to?” I know this was because of Yow and the…flavor he brought to The Jesus Lizard. I once heard his vocals described as the sound of a kidnapping victim trying to howl through the duct tape over their mouth, and that disturbing image is better than anything I could come up with. I still have no idea how he created some of those sounds. Listen to the beginning of “Gladiator” — is he cupping his hands over part of his mouth, and then just seeing how oddly he can twist his voice around? And while the band pounds away at an insistent one-note rhythm, he lets out lines like “You should see her use a gun,” and then he lets it sit, lets the rhythm keep going while you sit there in horror waiting for what will come next.
Yow provides tension on top of the tension from the band. He has no answers for you, he only wants to make things more uncomfortable. The best song on Liar might be “Zachariah” — the nearly six-minute epic that takes the tempo down to a crawl and achingly rests on certain notes like they’re wobbly floorboards about to break. Silence and rest are used to maximum effect here as Yow describes a mysterious unnamed man who commands respect in some quaint village. I still get chills every time when Yow sings, “He does not stroll, he does not stride,” and then the band hangs on a jangled chord as Yow loses himself and screams, “he SMOKES into town, goddamn.”
About three years later, after releasing the also-great Down, The Jesus Lizard signed with Capitol Records. This was when major labels were still swept up in the tsunami that Nirvana created, and they were signing bands who had absolutely no hope of ever appealing to a mass audience. The Jesus Lizard had no right being on MTV. It’s cool that it happened for a bit, but as anyone could easily predict, they did not catch on and sell a million records. What they did as a band was always meant for a select few, and I really don’t care if that makes me sound elitist. I swear I don’t mean to. I just mean that I’m so happy that whatever path I took as a musician and as a listener was one that led me to a place where I can appreciate weirdness and, as I said earlier, the refusal to compromise. The Jesus Lizard helped me see the nobility in doing things that stimulate your creative juices, no matter how many or how few will be interested.