Water Liars’ “Phantom Limb”
“It was recorded at Andrew Bryant’s home using a condenser mic in the middle of the room and very little else. The result is sound and fury signifying an early favorite for one of the year’s best albums.” -CBCameron Barham
“My Gawd, that’s awful,” said the old geezer by the rail.
“Is that the truth? I wouldn’t’ve told that. That’s terrible.”…
“This ain’t the place!” he said. “Tell your kind of story somewhere else.”
The old man who’d told his story was calm and fixed to his place.
He’d told the truth. The crowd on the pier was outraged and discomfited.
He wasn’t one of them. But he stood his place. He had a distressed pride.
You could see he had never recovered from the thing he’d told about…
We were both crucified by the truth.”
from “Water Liars” in Airships by Barry Hannah, 1978
Some albums are so polished and over produced that you know they can’t contain much of the rawness and grit of real life or the complexity of the nuanced truth. This is not the case with Water Liars’ debut album Phantom Limb. It is visceral and aching, haunting and beautiful filled with an array of desperate characters wandering about the Christ-haunted southern landscape. It was recorded in Pittsboro, Mississippi over a 3 day stretch at band member Andrew Bryant’s home using a condenser mic in the middle of the room and very little else. The result is sound and fury signifying an early favorite for one of the year’s best albums.
Water Liars consists simply (but complexly) of Justin Kinkel-Schuster, formerly of Theodore, on lead vocals and guitar and Andrew Bryant on drums, backing vocals, and other spare instrumentation. They are named for the fictional (non-fictional) old men who sit around the pier on the Yazoo River in Farte Cove, Mississippi to fish, lie, and resist messy truths in Barry Hannah’s “Water Liars” short story from the book Airships. Phantom Limb is a series of tales too fantastic at points to be completely true and too palpable at times to be completely false that holds together as a complete work. It calls to mind the sound and writing style of early Pedro the Lion and Damien Jurado while also seeming to pay homage at times to Vic Chesnutt and Sparklehorse (Mark Linkous).
The album opens with a Black Sabbath-like heavy reverb guitar riff with accompanying drums only to transition to a ‘50’s style late night shuffling, sweaty bar tune entitled “$100.” The song’s protagonist tells the sordid tale of lust and money lost and trouble gained. Kinkel-Schuster sings with Bryant accompanying, “My hand to God, I swear to you, I never touched a finer pair, but I woke up with a swollen jaw, the lesson and my wallet gone.” (.75 points: Vocals needed to be a hair clearer to appreciate the lyrics on this track)
Phantom Limb gently segues into “Dog Eaten” which tells the story of a dreamer who’s “father was quietly taken, the money I was makin’, from the dog eaten wallet, that he gave me that year” over tenderly plucked guitar chords. Kinkel-Schuster showcases the quality and texture of his voice as he declares, “My blood was my own, done what it pleased to, and there ain’t much more to say, I’m alive on the highway, dead on arrivin’, that ain’t know way to live this life.” (1 point)
The reverb returns on “Whoa Back” as the song wrestles with hope and despair most beautifully displayed in the bridge as Kinkel-Schuster proclaims low over the slogging wash of guitar, “Christ was born, Christ has died, Christ will come again, He’ll be my friend” only to push away in the next verse. (1 point) “Rest” follows again with another soul-soiled wanderer seeking some form of absolution only to be rejected by all (father, mother, and Savior) but his true love. (.75 points: Lacks a bit of dynamic)
“C.H.W.” is a song fragment that is developed more fully later in the album. (Though I like the part it includes, I can’t give points for a fragment: 0 points)
“Short Hair” comes out swinging as it picks up the pace and weight with heavily textured guitar and driving drums as it is warned, “They’ll tell you what you want, and tell you when, the next thing you know, they got you by the short hair again.” (1 point)
The strangest moment on the record comes with the schizophrenic “It Is Well With My Soul.” It is the equivalent of an art happening that was made popular at Black Mountain College in Asheville, North Carolina in the ‘50’s. The song opens with, “What fresh hell is this, Got the gun, got the will, got the heart, but all I do is miss” before devolving further in despair. The song then transitions into a recording of Aleister Crowley, British occultist, sexual deviant, drug addict, and magician, reading his poem “The Pentagram” about the lordship of the will and power of man. The song then transitions into an aching rendition of Horatio Spafford’s lament hymn “It Is Well With My Soul” written in response to the deaths of his son in a fire and his daughters in a ferry boat accident. The vocals are haunting and made all the more so by the accompaniment of the sound of violin strings being painfully malformed. (.75 points)
The album longingly slows to a shadowy close with “Low & Long” and “On the Day” which concludes with the dying pledge, “On the day that I die, I will see everything coming on slow, And the lies that I’ve told will come creeping through my bedroom window, And the ones who have loved me will suddenly feel something cold, As my black, black soul tries vainly to rise and turn gold, And I’ll have no more excuses for the way that I’ve treated you.” In a moment that would make Mark Linkous proud, “On the Day” closes with the recorded ambient environmental noise of voices that can’t be discerned and the howl of a train and chorus of frogs in the distance. (2 points total for both songs)
There is a 10th song that is not listed on the CD case or on a variety of track listings in other places entitled “The Pentagram” that is too good not to be included in this review. It is late night ode to a cold-hearted woman that includes an amazing dynamic crescendo of music and urgent vocals that bring the album to a satisfying close. (1 point)
Phantom Limb is an excellent example of what can happen when you make music from the gut. While this record may not suit everyone’s taste, the truth is Water Liars made the album they wanted to make without being overly concerned with who really gets it. Check out their insightful interview with No Depression.