Liars was the indie love story that wasn’t—that is if you’re looking at it as one of the more splendidly hideous collaborations between oddball songwriters to emerge from indie’s voracious ethos. In their fifteen years of existence, they’ve relished but never banked on their notoriety as workaholics whose output defined how insignificant the parameters of indie rock can impose on the restless and the unruly. Before the release of last year’s TFCF, in which de-facto frontman Angus Andrew remained the only member of the project following the amiable departures of drummer Julian Gross and all-around whizbang Aaron Hemphill, the group was unyielding in their penchant for sonic mischief and their utterly bizarro aesthetic.
Mere months after TFCF tested Andrew’s newfound role as charge d’affaires of his once-bombastic project, Hemphill steered into a different and even more eccentric course of action. Relocating from Liars’ semi-permanent home base of Los Angeles to Berlin, Hemphill refused to suspend his songwriting habits for even a second and set to work on a statement of his own. Take a gander at the press release for his proper debut under the moniker Nonpareils, and you’ll immediately suspect that Hemphill’s stratagems are exceedingly strange and potentially infuriating even for Liars’ loose coterie of standards. These tactics include laying down drum rhythms without click tracks, distracted recording sessions, and committing atrocities of equipment malpractice in the pursuit of off-kilter directives. Shunning the maligned contortions of Liars’ Mess, now symbolically their last full-length as a trio, Hemphill’s Scented Pictures is the hypnagogic outsider of the Liars canon.
Arguably, the most proximate reference points for Scented Pictures stray far from Liars, instead citing the cluttered tapes of early Ariel Pink and the lopsided pop of 60s cultists the Shaggs as distant muses. Each hand-crafted melody hones in on Hemphill’s variable performances, which unavoidably reflects his sorely missed jack-of-all-trades tasks in Liars, from his rattling drum beats to his sunny guitar plucks. Progression between tracks is waived to consolidate each melody into a singular entity packed with layers upon layers of mindless, glitchy textures and alien moods. Not only are these hunks of otherworldly sound distinguishable by their plan of attack, but their dynamics are often warped beyond perception. Lead single “The Timeless Now” flails with its pitch-shifted-vocals-as-harmonizer and molasses drum stomp, mostly culminating in an electronic funhouse of horror and obfuscation. Think of WIXIW’s skittery electronica but obtuse, or Liars’ self-titled freakouts but transposed to audio workstation trickery.
Equally accessible, or at the very least enthralling, is the primal dirge of “Cherry Cola” and the cluttered overtures of “The Fever That Goes Up and Down,” both of which leaching as much immediacy as possible with Hemphill’s often-tuneless vocals and explosive arrangements. The organic-minded numbers of Scented Pictures might appear the odd ones out in the midst of jumbled digital instruments and padding—most notably, the wiry guitar and bass duality of “Make Me Miss the Misery Girls” that devise the album’s harmonic centerpiece, but deviates from Hemphill’s anti-tonal structure. These melodies aren’t contentiously drawn to the polar opposites of emotional value, instead choosing to retreat into precepts akin to cartoony and curiously avant-garde. At times, the checkered direction produces a couple of tediously ineffective tracks, such as the helter-skelter glitch waltz of “Ditchglass, They Think” that flushes analog rubbish through a sheepish synthesizer hook.
There is a conceptual foundation for Scented Pictures that appears antsier to serve as its takeaway versus Hemphill’s insight as a producer in the wake of his departure from Liars. If miscalculation and hocus-pocus doth make the quintessential experimental debut, then Nonpareils will garner some attention for the versatile crazy-to-calm dynamics (i.e., the transition from “Invisible Jets” to “Press Play” in a few minutes’ time) and full-clad effort. Much to Hemphill’s chagrin, Scented Pictures is not a wonky pop record by essence, but pleasant in the same passage that exalted Atlas Sound’s bedroom material or Panda Bear’s worldly anthems as plainly experimental music. These are abstractions that are perfectly ripe in the post-Liars eon, and Hemphill’s talents will reemerge as a potent but unpalatable force in due time.