Think of Rence Liam as a kind of latter-day Jonathan Richman in reverse.
While Richman's first album with the Modern Lovers was hailed as an indie-rock milestone, he subsquently turned into a solo acoustic troubadour singing childlike odes to mosquitos, affection and ice cream trucks.
By contrast, Colorado Springs singer-songwriter Liam, who performs and records under the name Dear Rabbit, started out as an accordion-wielding troubadour and has since been moving in a distinctly indie-rock direction.
Dear Rabbit's newly released third album, They're Not Like You, goes a long way toward completing that transition.
The record was engineered and produced by Eros and the Eschaton cofounder Adam Hawkins, whose tuneful electric guitar, organ and synth parts help make this the most accessible and creative Dear Rabbit work to date. One-man rhythm section Alex Koshak is also all over the album, while the occasional guest appearance by cellist Danah Olivetree, as well as horn players Jeremy Van Hoy and Mike Van Arsdale, further diversify the sound. Liam, meanwhile, plays piano, guitar, musical saw and, most conspicuously, no accordions.
"I haven't played accordion onstage in almost two years, because I wanted to go in this direction," says the ever-affable Liam, who's nevertheless haunted by his own accordion-wielding ghost on the internet.
"People keep posting photos of me from four years ago, which does get kind of annoying. Because when anybody sees those pictures — or even when I see photos like that — I'm not like, 'Oh, I want to hear that band.'"
Yet, despite directional differences, Liam still gets those Jonathan Richman comparisons, which aren't necessarily unwarranted. Both musicians project a guileless innocence that's too often abandoned in adulthood. There's also a striking similarity in their sing-songy vocals, which, while clearly untrained, are endearingly expressive. Also, both have a knack for cute animal songs, although Dear Rabbit's "What Kind of Doggies Do You Like?" lacks the narrative arc of Richman's "I'm a Little Dinosaur."
These days, Liam ranks Guided by Voices as his favorite band, with Sparklehorse following close behind.
"Oh, and Daniel Johnston, too," he adds enthusiastically. "I was listening to him the other day, and I really like his whole attitude. It's like 'I don't care, here's my songs."
A Springs transplant, Liam has fond memories of family road trips from the southwest Kansas farm town where he grew up to Colorado tourist attractions like Garden of the Gods and Seven Falls. Although he didn't know many people when he moved here, his ever-present smile and enthusiastic attitude soon endeared him to the local music community.
And while Liam's music has never been particularly conventional or commercial, it's still gotten its share of attention.
"Dear Rabbit is a singular talent," wrote music critic Joshua Levine in Tucson Weekly, "a rarity we often forget exists in the post-everything world."
It doesn't hurt that Liam spends a good portion of his life on the road, playing wherever he can get booked, crashing wherever there's a couch. Along the way, he's developed a network of friends around the country, while racking up some 360,000 miles on his 13-year-old Corolla.
Come August, Liam will be back on the road playing his new Dear Rabbit material, much of which is more poignant than the album's rock arrangements might lead you to imagine.
Take, for instance, "Like a Child," which includes lyrics like "Dad says they're building walls to keep the bad guys out." (The song was written, Liam swears, long before the Trump candidacy.)
And then there's the line, "Every night, I'm tempted by something from the dark side," which raises the obvious question: Can someone who's virtually never been seen in public without a huge smile even have a dark side?
"I mean, there's all sorts of sadness," says Liam. "People are like, 'Why are you always happy?' And I'm like, 'No, I'm not always happy.' I don't know. I spend a lot of time alone. So I guess when I'm out and around people, that's what makes me happy."