6 Feb 2013
Grouper " The Man Who Died in His Boat" Review
Reviewed By Jason Simpson
When a high-profile artist, in this case Liz Harris (aka Grouper) releases a new record, it places a would-be reviewer in a tough pickle. If your review is not published within the first few seconds of the album’s release, you run the risk of being delegated to Google’s backpages, and you're forced to retread and rehash what other journalists spout. It raises one of the first unspoken questions of album review: Why are you writing about this?
In some cases, you might be assigned the task, but I (and most of my fellow writers here at The Active Listener) are operating under much more primal instincts. Be it recognition, charity or boredom, we feel the need to spin words about sounds, which brings us to the music.
First of all, here are the facts:
1. "The Man Who Died In His Boat" was released on 2.5.13, on Kranky Records (mmm... Kranky Records), to coincide with the re-release of "Dragging A Dead Deer Uphill".
2. "The Man Who Died In His Boat" is made up of outtakes from the "Dragging A Dead Deer Uphill" sessions.
3. The title and the album as a whole, is based upon an incident in Harris’ youth, where she and her father came upon a deserted sailboat, whose pilot “had simply slipped off somehow, and the boat, like a riderless horse, eventually came back home.” - from Liz Harris' press release.
Now, every journalist on the planet has been forced to spin some permutation of those three basic facts. But I’m not here to bullshit you dear reader, I would expect more adventurous reading habits from those that frequent the burned-out grooves of the majority of albums that end up here at The Active Listener. We are not looking for objectivity here. We are trying to find a trustworthy psychopomp to lead us into the abyss, where we can still find miracles.
Liz Harris’ music is not well-suited to the limelight (although it does stand up). Last summer, I saw her play as part of an Improvisational music festival here in Portland (which you can read about here if you're curious). She played in a nearly pitch-black room, with skeletal branches harshly backlit to throw scratchy shadows on the wall, while an interpretive dancer mimicked The Hermit; a shining light in the darkness. Harris hunched over her pedals, swaddled in subaquatic turqoise light, filling the room with layer upon layer upon layer upon layer of cooing reverbed vocals and disembodied electronics. The air was thick with tension, almost panic, waiting for some MOVEMENT, some GESTURE; a point to it all. Many people do not realize that Grouper is the dark holy feminine; ‘occult’ means ‘hidden’, it will not come when called.
It was not until I had abandoned all expectations, quietened all rampant thoughts and societal worries, and let the room become a time capsule and a sensory deprivation tank, that I could feel the holy spirit. Dark owls filled my mind, and I was bathed in moonlight.
Listening to Grouper is like this: her records are amniotic dream states that will make you cry. She says everything, without using a word. "The Man Who Died..." is a fine summation of everything she has done to date, all her trademarks and signatures; warm minimalist folk guitar, saturated tape-collage, ghostly vocal choruses, found sounds and field recordings. One of the main things I must emphasize about Liz Harris’ work is that she is absolutely NOT another bullshit drone artist (I hope to further quantify what exactly that means, at a later date), rather her records are like listening to Karen Dalton or the Cocteau Twins at half-speed. Spacious and languid enough to appreciate the peaks and troughs of the waveforms, to find the beating heart in the heart of darkness. At the end of the day, listening to Grouper is an emotional experience, and it is such a godsend to have a feminine touch in the deep dark underground, to find a different kind of magick.
It's amazing that this was recorded five years ago; its totally in line with her recent work, reminding me of last year’s "Mirroring" project most thoroughly. Being a long time fan of Grouper has been like watching a dark-eyed specter, gradually emerging from the gloom. Turns out she’s not a ghost at all. My friends and I used to imagine Liz Harris in a dim, dingy room, coked up on pharmaceuticals, coming out of her reverie every 26 minutes to strum her guitar. I was legitimately worried for her; it seemed like her music was her only salvation from the void, barely making it to the next day. It's been a relief to watch her grow and thrive, becoming an atavistic force in the experimental world, pushing and challenging others off the edges of the map.
"The Man Who Died In His Boat" is personal and intimate, yet it still has the sparkle of a major release. I’ve never known Kranky to put out a dud, and I don’t doubt this, or "Dragging A Dead Deer Uphill", will sound bonkers on vinyl.
I don’t claim to be an authority on this record. Every time Harris comes out with a new record, I become obsessed and infatuated and have to start all over again. It makes me want to hear every note she has ever released, see her every time she plays. This is the power of mystery and suggestion. I can tell you that some of my personal favorites are ‘Vital’ with its languid acoustic strum and heartfelt, faraway vocals; ‘Clouds In Places’ trancey pulsing guitar and sweet, sweet singing (I don’t think enough has been made of Harris' guitar playing. It's simple and perfect. Inspiring.); ‘Vanishing Point’, because its nice to hear some experimentation amidst the ‘songs’; and ‘Living Room’ - it's gorgeous and nicely closes the record. Its what it might sound like if the Captain from Slint’s hair-raising ghost story ‘Good Morning Captain’ were to get in through the window, settle in next to the fire, tell you a story in a dripping puddle of brine and slime.
I can’t really recommend one particular track; I recommend taking it in as a whole, maybe watching the sky through a window, or while wandering in thought. Drink it all in, let it merge with your molecules, and then start over, and listen to every single note she has ever produced.
"The Man Who Died in His Boat" is available here.