With the Water Liars's self-titled album - the band's third record in as many years - you could be forgiven for thinking that you're in for a jarring ride based on the song titles and the opening track's bleak but majestic riff. "Cannibal" is followed by "War Paint" and "I Want Blood."
You are in for a ride, although it's less the beat-down and carnage that the titles suggest than a careening from loud distortion to gentle Americana and back. "Ray Charles Dream" is a hooky, punk-tinged rock song sandwiched between the slow-footed guitar lament of "Tolling Bells" and the even-slower-footed piano lament of "Vespers."
"That's always been sort of a point for us," said singer/songwriter/guitarist Justin Kinkel-Schuster in a phone interview last week, promoting the trio's May 14 performance at Rozz-Tox. "Widely shifting dynamics has always been an important part of our sound ... both live and on records. ... I just always am intrigued by moving between those poles. There's something interesting about taking a ride like that."
It's not merely a sonic roller coaster. The title and sentiment of "I Want Blood" ("I want blood all the time") would seem to lend themselves to a ravenous rock treatment, but the song instead places the lyrics in a warm and ethereal musical context, making it a reverb-heavy anthem to searching and soaring. "Tension is why art exists," Kinkel-Schuster explained of the apparent contradiction. "Without tension, I don't think there's a whole lot to go on. ... Without tension you don't have a story; there's nothing to resolve."
By the light folk of the fourth song, "Swannanoa," it's evident that the band possess an unusual capacity to surprise and confound without alienating listeners. No matter what mode Water Liars - which also features drummer Andrew Bryant and bassist G.R. Robinson - operates in, it's able to craft something convincing and unforced.
Part of that, surely, is because nothing is forced. Kinkel-Schuster said the band's debut, 2012's Phantom Limb, was "essentially an accident," the fruits of he and Bryant getting together initially to see what happened. Last year's Wyoming was also recorded quickly, the result of the duo crafting detailed demos before heading into the studio.
The band spent (relatively) more time working on Water Liars - but it was still recorded in three sessions and mixed in another. "Compared to what we'd done with the records before, it was at least twice as long, but still altogether it was only about 10 days of work," Kinkel-Schuster said. "Both Andrew and I, that's how we work best. We don't really like to mess around. ... I'm less cerebral about the recording process than I think most people are. ... It's essentially still magic to me."
Unlike with Wyoming, Water Liars went into the studio this time with acoustic demos but no final arrangements - which Kinkel-Schuster and Bryant typically work on together. "We just wanted to give ourselves more time to think and work and see if there's some other places we can take the arrangements of the songs," the singer said. "I was just at a point where I wanted us to try a few different sounds and see what exactly we could do with them." The process of Water Liars, he said, added "an element of discovering the songs as we got into them."
PopMatters.com wrote that "taken as a lone release, Water Liars is the band's strongest outing, formalizing their distinct sound." But it added: "Having worked their sound across three albums, this approach is bordering on the formulaic."
Kinkel-Schuster seemed to agree, saying that fans shouldn't expect a fourth record to arrive early next year as Water Liars' career to this point would suggest. "We're definitely hanging back on it," he said. "Working so quickly, we've sort of bypassed the opportunity to grow and change the way the records sound. I think it's time to do that."
Water Liars will perform on Wednesday, May 14, at Rozz-Tox (2108 Third Avenue, Rock Island; RozzTox.com). The show starts at 8 p.m. and also features White Zephyr. Admission is $7.
For more information on Water Liars, visit WaterLiarsMusic.com.