What happens in the margins of the music Liz Harris makes as Grouper is often as important as the music itself. In a performance at Krakow’s Unsound Festival earlier this month, the rattle of a film projector added a layer of instant nostalgia to her murky swirls of voice and guitar. Much of the time, Grouper’s music is so diffuse that there’s no longer any distinction between center and margin anyway, no difference between foreground and background.
That is not the case on Ruins, the first album from the Portland, Oregon, musician since last year’s The Man Who Died in His Boat. Here, the incidental noises—crickets, croaking frogs, thunder and rain, and, at one point, the unmistakable beep of a microwave oven that fired up after a blackout in the house where she was recording—serve primarily to underscore how stark the music is, unadorned and pocked with vast silences. Ruins is Grouper’s “unplugged” record, essentially, as much as that might sound odd for a musician who has always put acoustic guitar and piano and voice at the core of her work. Here, however, she foreswears the looping pedals and the innumerable layers of fuzz that are just as essential to her aesthetic. What we’re left with is achingly beautiful and, given the intensely private nature of most of Grouper’s work—on stage, she often plays sitting down, crouched over in order to manipulate her effects pedals, her face hidden in shadow—almost unnervingly direct.
The emotional core of the album is the four melancholy songs for piano and voice, which are complemented by two instrumentals of a similar mood. Rarely have Harris’ lyrics been so clearly audible, and rarely, if ever, has love been so plainly the focus of her songwriting. “I hear you calling and I wanna go/ Run straight into the valleys of your arms,” she sings on “Holding”, her multitracked close harmonies reminiscent of Low circa The Curtain Hits the Cast. On the devastating “Clearing”, she sings, “Every time I see you/ I have to pretend I don’t”; on “Call Across Rooms”, she has a change of heart: “I have a present to give you/ When we finally figure it out.” (“The song is on one level very plain and literal, about a letter I wrote for someone I loved and could not get along with,” she told Vogue.)
Not everything is so explicit. In “Clearing”, she keeps her vocal range between the notes of her piano chords, as though she were seeking refuge there, and her wispy voice frequently dissolves into indecipherability, like cold breath passing through a beam of sunlight. Her phrasing is tentative and guarded; even without recourse to her trusty loops, she finds ways to muddy the atmosphere. Multitracking offers a way of hiding behind her own shadow, and her foot rarely leaves the piano’s sustain pedal, even on the instrumental numbers.
Only two songs on the album don’t quite fit the mold. The opening “Made of Metal”, essentially a means of clearing the air, is just a slow, ritualistic drumbeat wreathed in the sound of distant frogs. And the closing “Made of Air” returns us to the drifting ambient world of Grouper that we’re most familiar with. The latter dates back to 2004, and it’s of a piece with other material from that period, like her 2005 album Way Their Crept, where looping tones of uncertain provenance—Voice? Guitar? Keyboard?—swirled into a jellied haze. It doesn’t necessarily fit with what’s come before it, but it’s a welcome addendum to the album, if only for its familiarity.
Ruins has a vivid sense of place. Harris recorded the album in 2011 during an artistic residency in Aljezur, Portugal—a tiny coastal town tucked inside a nature preserve on the southwestern corner of the country. In a press release, she describes the pleasures of recording simply, hiking to the beach, and getting lost in her head, working out “a lot of political anger and emotional garbage… The album is a document. A nod to that daily walk. Failed structures. Living in the remains of love.” Even without knowing the particulars of the album’s backstory, the naked recording means that you can practically picture the room in which it was made—the worn floorboards, or maybe ceramic tiles, dusted with sand; the stucco walls, slightly damp; the steam rising from a cup of tea near the upright piano. Even the microwave that made the tea, which beeps once towards the end of “Labyrinth”, an accidental noise allowed to remain in the final cut. From the hushed mood and half-enunciated vocals of it all, you get the feeling she didn’t speak to many people during that time of focused creativity. Lucky for us.
from Album Reviews – Pitchfork http://ift.tt/1tC74ns