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Grouper – Dragging A Dead Deer Up A Hill

October 17, 2008

What a pleasant surprise that two of 2008s best releases are somewhat stylistically similar. Both Gregor Samsa’s Rest and Grouper’s Dragging A Dead Deer Up A Hill are introspective melancholy masterworks that deserve great praise and attention, but the latter might be both more difficult and rewarding.

Grouper is actually the work of a single individual, Portland Oregon’s folk/noise aficionado Liz Harris. There is very little information available on the artist. But this album will surely spark interest and cause a greater population of listeners to continue searching, in vain, for more information. But until the inevitable day when she hits it big, pretty much all that listeners will have to go on is her distinctive style which she articulates quite extensively on her studio albums, the latest of which is Dragging A Dead Deer Up A Hill.

As far as style goes on prior releases, Grouper’s genre is hard to pin down, perhaps most appropriately described as creepy atmospheric music, but on Dead Deer, Harris’s style is reduced to a singular approach. Almost every song consists solely of Harris on guitar and vocals, but the trick is that both of these instruments are multiplied. A very thick layer of distortion covers both like a blanket, causing them to resonate out into the atmosphere, and the vocals are occasionally doubled for harmonic effect, although their lyrical content is almost completely indecipherable.

This is probably the album’s most frustrating quality; the vast majority of Liz Harris’s vocals here are impossible to understand, too muddled under the thick distortion to decipher. What little is understandable is not passively heard. One has to concentrate on the vocals of the songs to realize their content, which mostly involves sleep, water, and dissociation from reality. However, the effect the distortion has on the lyrics is outweighed by what the production does for the music, which in turn matches these lyrical preoccupations quite well. From the opening chords of Disengaged, the production ruminates of stormy waters, the sparse melodies threaten to lull the listener into a deep sleep, and lonely, sad, and yearning chord progressions carry along.

All of these qualities, especially strung out over an entire release with little stylistic diversion, would presumably come together to make a very cold, unwelcoming album, but in fact the opposite is true. The production actually does the album’s atmosphere good, causing chords to echo out into the darkness like a flickering candle. In theory this should be a very creepy sounding album, but it is instead both startlingly melancholic and warmly emotional.

Perhaps what makes it so affecting are its subtle intricacies. Songs often times match their titles, namely the aforementioned excellent opener Disengaged, but even more recognizably the longest piece on the album, Stuck, whose progression is in constant conflict with itself and cannot seem to move on. Also very atmospherically distinctive and appropriately named are the barren Wind And Snow, and the following Tidal Wave, the album’s two most important songs, and opposite sides of the same coin.

These more texture based pieces work in good conjunction with the album’s more memorable melodies, namely the easy pick for best song Heavy Water/I’d Rather Be Sleeping, the faster paced Fishing Bird, and the fractured title track. But the highlights don’t stop there. At first glance Dragging A Dead Deer Up A Hill seems like an awfully samesy album, but upon repeated listens the subtle differences between tracks flesh themselves out and each song becomes its own entity. Perhaps the most startling piece on the album is the quiet Invisible. Harris lightly sings, once again barely interpretable, “Invisible/I’ve become invisible” over her most simplistic, almost childlike melody on the album.

It is here that we realize that Dragging A Dead Deer up a hill is an album filled with secrets that will most likely never be fully understood. Even the title and art seem to be extremely important to the overall product, and yet there is no evidence as to what they mean. It is hard to say whether this was intended to simply be a collection of songs or a sort of narrative either literally or symbolically based off of the album’s creepy title, but in any case Dead Deer has an eerie, unexplainable cohesion. In this way the album’s form matches the style of its songs. It is easy to feel the presence of what is there behind the music when considering all of its subtle intricacies and almost tantalizing questions that are constantly asked but never quite answered, and for this reason, the music itself is that much easier to cling onto and appreciate. Because of all of these elements, Dragging A Dead Deer Up A Hill proves to be one of the most complex and rewarding albums of the year.

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