Archive for the ‘Slowcore’ Category

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Off This Century – My Favorite Albums of 2000-2009

December 25, 2009
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Grouper / City Center – Split 7": False Horizon / This is How We See in the Dark

March 13, 2009

Grouper / City Center - Split 7

Grouper / City Center - Split 7"

In 2007, ambient/drone artist Liz Harris, otherwise known as Grouper, released a split LP with fellow West Coast experimental drone artist Eva Saelens, otherwise known as Inca Ore. At the time, the two artists were contemporaries in every way, coming from the same general geographical area as solo artists, both crafting eerie dark ambient music and having had a few albums under their belts. Grouper gave a taste of the succulent melodicism that was to come in full force on her subsequent album Dragging a Dead Deer Up a Hill, and Inca Ore provided ambient noise soundscapes that wouldn’t sound out of place on the soundtrack of a horror film.

In the end the scales tipped toward Grouper, the reason being that Inca Ore’s material really only catered to fans of noise and the most difficult of dark ambient, and the songs Grouper provided were the most advanced as well as accessible of any other work she had yet done. With that said, the progression of Grouper’s catalogue is very traceable. Starting with the impenetrable dark ambient of her debut album, Way Their Crept, through the slightly more experimental but still drone heavy Wide, then to the subtly melodic Cover The Windows and the Walls, then the aforementioned bittersweet melodies on the Split LP,  and up to the sublimely melodic Dragging a Dead Deer Up a Hill; Harris’ output has always moved closer and closer to flat out folk music, and her contribution to this split single, “False Horizon,” is finally the pinnacle of that progression.

The song pulses with lightly strummed guitars that are no longer completely submerged but only knee deep in liquidic reverberation. The only melodic tools used here are a single acoustic guitar and several layers of harmonized vocals. It is the barest Harris has ever left herself or any of her music, no longer a claustrophobic cacophony that we heard on Way Their Crept and Wide, as engaging as they were. As usual, the vocals here are only partially intelligible. We can almost be sure that Harris sings “where bodies float down,” at some point, but it is hard to tell, and this sense of mystery has served her well before, but never quite in such an accessible context. In effect, this is Liz Harris relying solely on her songwriting ability, which we can say with great certainty now is excellent. The result is a dark, addictive, intriguing single that is very tangible, what was hinted at on Dragging a Dead Deer Up a Hill, which never quite reached the bare bones nature of “False Horizon.”

The other single here, “This is How We See in the Dark” by newcomers City Center, is also significant. The band, a duo of Brooklyn natives Ryan Howard and Fred Thomas, make experimental folk music in the same way as Grouper, but with a more eclectic sonic palette. This is mostly to their advantage, and many of their songs are sonically standout as well as charmingly melodic, but they don’t have the sticking power that Grouper’s music does. But if they have more songs like “This is How We See in the Dark” in store, then they are a band that we would be best to trace the progress of. The song sounds a bit like a warped carnival song, but with more melancholy than creepiness. In a few instances, the group’s experimental sound encroaches on the body of the song, but not without purpose. The hazy, contorted melody is about as memorable as “False Horizon,” and in the end both songs are good.

Although both sides of this single are quality songs, “False Horizon” really steals the show here, the reason being that Liz Harris commands attention with every release she makes and is by this time a reliable guru of her craft. The quality of her music has increased on an exponential curve, and she shows no sign of slowing down. With all due respect to City Center, this is really Grouper’s triumph. The release’s biggest problem is undoubtedly availability. The single is limited to self-released limited edition appropriately colored “dirty water gray” vinyl only, which is now out of stock, so acquiring these songs means either doing it illegally or hunting down and shelling out a high price for the vinyl, which is frustrating. But until the day when these songs are (hopefully) released on CD or through iTunes like the Inca Ore / Grouper split was, or the possibility that they will be released on forthcoming albums is fruitful, these excellent singles will be heard by few. The Split album with Inca Ore showed promise that Harris was capable of something outstanding. She delivered on that promise with Dragging a Dead Deer Up a Hill. We can be hopeful that history will repeat itself and Grouper will release yet another masterpiece.

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2. Grouper – Dragging a Dead Deer Up a Hill

December 31, 2008
Grouper - Dragging a Dead Deer Up a Hill

Grouper - Dragging a Dead Deer Up a Hill

Portland Oregon’s Liz Harris, otherwise known as Grouper, has moved toward a more melodic sound with Dragging a Dead Deer Up a Hill. She has transformed from a studio hermit who crafts ambient slowcore to a troubador who crafts folk music, and the cloud of ambiance that she created to hang over her head has simply followed her. Her earliest albums, Way Their Crept and Wide, were notable ambient experiments and hinted at real melodic talent, but Dead Deer fleshes out these promises. The listener watches from a box seat in an otherwise empty theater as Harris weaves an intricate story through music. The result is an album that is at once haunting and beautiful, answers questions that her earlier albums posed, and raises even more. The first of which will undoubtedly be, “what is she saying?” The lyrics on Dead Deer are nearly unintelligible, but here they break through the fog more often than on previous works. The music mostly consists of simple guitar and vocal melodies, produced in a very full way. This formula, without much change, should have made for an extremely boring album, and at first that was what it seemed like to me. But I came back to this album, and not because anyone told me to. It has an eerie gravity due in part to it’s obscurity. Dead Deer is structured as a musical narrative that we want to materialize into something we can fully understand, but it always floats just out of reach. The understandable lyrical content in conjunction with the song titles can be vaguely but not completely understood; the narrator has a fascination with water, sleep, and dissociation from reality. The mood is melancholy throughout, but Harris’ melodic talent as well as careful attention to dynamics and slight variations make for utterly gripping pieces that demand further attention. After repeated listens, each song becomes individual and creates its own world. Songs match their titles. The album’s two instrumentals (although they do have bits of vocal ambiance in them), Wind and Snow and Tidal Wave, replicate desolate loneliness and a swirling wall of sound respectively. The longest song on the album, Stuck, flounders hopelessly like a fish out of water and can’t seem to find a chorus, verse, or bridge. Invisible sounds like a children’s song with a dark, unidentifiable twist. And I’m Dragging a Dead Deer Up a Hill, which acts as the centerpiece of the album, creates an aural representation of what dragging said deer (be it literal or metaphorical) up a hill would feel like. The emotional experience is very double edged, and thus that much more intriguing. It is both comforting and haunting, and it traces a path that seems to be close to the human condition. Liz Harris has tapped into something mysterious with Dragging a Dead Deer Up a Hill, and I wonder if she knows exactly what it is. Regardless of whether she does, Dead Deer is a masterwork that is a result of astounding musicianship, and a sign of more great things to come.

Grouper

Grouper