Album Review: Liam Kazar – Due North

[Mare/Woodsist; 2021]

Kansas City-based musician Liam Kazar makes several references to shoes and walking on his debut album Due North, almost as if taking the album’s title as something to be accomplished by foot. It’s an idea that, by extension, evokes dedication and perseverance. Here’s a guy who, over the past several years, has played with esteemed rockers including Steve Gunn, Daniel Johnston, and Jeff Tweedy. So it shouldn’t be a surprise that his debut album is something memorable, though not in the ways listeners may expect; they may be reminded of the electro-country infusions of Beck (“So Long Tomorrow”) or the glistening hook-laden tunes of Alex Cameron (“Old Enough For You”). These, coupled with other experimentations built on his alt-country foundations, elevate Due North from what could have been an otherwise unambitious debut record.

Kazar has credited his approach to a conversation he had with Jeff Tweedy. “I showed [Tweedy] some of my earliest songs I was working on and he told me, ‘It sounds like you’re writing for the people in your bands, you’re not writing for yourself,’” he said. Following this, he started from scratch and discovered his love of synths and hook-driven pop. Indeed, the bouncing synth lines on “Shoes Too Tight”, a song that started as an acoustic ballad, add a playfulness to a song that sees Kazar teetering on the verge of hopelessness (“Somewhere between liquor and Listerine / There’s wasted breath upon wasted dreams”). Meanwhile “Old Enough For You” is a pure retro treat: the track has the sheen of a late-1970s single with thick, rubbery grooves and ecstatic backing vocals (Macie Stewart and Sima Cunningham contribute vocals throughout the album). This approach is clearly where Kazar shines.

“There were two words I had in my head during the making of this record, which was ‘joyful’ and ‘vulnerable’,” said Kazar. Regardless of the genre or atmosphere, Kazar imbues pop sensibilities throughout Due North. “On a Spanish Dune” is a delightful song draped in layers of synths that slowly builds up to a gentle climax complete with pedal steel, soft percussion, and harmonizing vocals. Kazar delves more into the alt-country territory of his mentors on the album’s second half; the sweeping ballad “No Time for Eternity”, for example, features country crooner Andrew Sa. The verses of “I’ve Been Where You Are” are punctuated with fluttering  synth notes that add optimism to a song that sees Kazar expressing his understanding to a down-and-out friend (All your dreams have turned / To hopeless schemes and burned / I’ve been where you are before”).

This is to say that Kazar’s lyrics certainly accomplish the ‘vulnerable’ side of the project’s mission statement. On the opening track “So Long Tomorrow”, Kazar focuses on the pedestrian; “I’d hang my coat on any old hook / But I prefer the second from the left.” Yet, just as fast, they unravel to reveal his daily philosophy: “I just bid so long tomorrow / And farewell to the past.” Album single and highlight “Frank Bacon” sees Kazar observe a friend who’s meandering through their life. “I’ll keep my feet on solid ground / I’m never gonna let you down,” he sings over a melancholic yet endearing melody. Unlike the unwavering empathy he expressed on “I’ve Been Where You Are”, here, it’s clear he’s questioning his loyalty.

Album closer “Something Tender” is unlike any other track on the album. The song’s bedrock of synths is unexpectedly complemented with pedal steel and twangy guitars; Kazar, meanwhile, sings about a former lover who’s moved on (“You say you’re where you’re meant to be / And that I’m such a friend”). It’s a blend that, in hindsight, makes perfect sense for him. Kazar is a musician with many ideas and he has used Due North to feel around and find the right fit, no map required. Sure, detractors may call this a lack of focus, but why be so cynical? Due North is a testament that the journey is half of the fun.