Review Summary: Dragging a Dead Deer Up a Hill is not an album I’d recommend to just anyone; an audience will eventually find Grouper, and when they do, it’ll be more than well-deserved.
Liz Harris has a Youtube account with one video. The video is of a Portland thunderstorm as shot through a window, a streetlight shifting in and out of focus in the foreground, all scored to Metallica’s “Ride the Lightning.” This, I guess, is the kind of girl Liz Harris is; her webpage displays a photo of a wall covered in fading mementos, saddled next to a photo of a show flyer with what I can only describe as a cultic, alien black metal band. First impressions would lead me to a lot of conclusions on what a solo effort by Ms. Harris would ultimately sound like, and they all come dangerously close to being something black metal. Not to mention the dramatic title, Dragging a Dead Deer Up a Hill
, which conjures more than a few images of draining numbers.
So what do first impressions mean when I can say that Grouper’s Dragging a Dead Deer Up a Hill
, her third release, is one of the most beautiful, understated, and emotional albums of the year? It almost feels unfair to judge it on any sort of grounds; the album is so thick with tension, with an apparent struggle and longing, that Dead Deer
feels more like a response than a story, written with exactly one person in mind. This has every bit to do with Harris’ stylistic choices, from the production’s hazy layer of feedback, to the attention on the effects of the guitar, right down to the levels at which Harris’ voice is pushed into the mix, so that every bit of Dead Deer
feels personal and different. No two moments ever fully meet, and that’s what makes Dead Deer
captivating. This is important, of course, because there’s not a terrible difference in dynamics on Dead Deer
. It is, essentially, a girl and her guitar, but there’s nothing simple about it.
“Disengaged” sets the scene: waves overlapping, crashing into the surface before a lone string is plucked, bellowing from the center. Harris follows closely behind, her voice soft and small against the reverb (there’s a bit of Chan Marshall in her). The low hum of static still remains long after the waves have faded away and they stay; if that sound was signaling the end of the Big Event that plagues Harris, the haze makes Dead Deer
the poignant aftermath. Even when the production threatens to overtake the songwriting, Harris is careful to bring the songs back to Earth; when the twangs of her guitars shuffle a little quicker, her voice rising in a loud whisper in “Traveling Through A Sea,” she allows the notes to fall gracefully back down to her comfort zone. These moments create for a varied listen, like those found in “When We Fall,” where Harris’ finger tapping create ripples in her falsetto, or the layered vocals in “Invisible” that trail Harris’ like an apparition.
These variations help keep Dead Deer
’s 45 minutes flowing, and the album only tightens as it presses on. The title-track is a dreamy, diluted surfer-pop tune, prodded along by Harris’ accentuating and inflections, leading into “A Cover Over,” which pushes the acoustic guitar above the haze to create the album’s most immediately accessible track. More than just coincidence though, it’s followed by the album’s weirdest and most defining moment: “Wind and Snow,” a song built on sonic waves that roll leisurely from one speaker to the other. Harris isn’t so much the focus here anymore as much as a commodity, and her soft-spoken bellows seem like an afterthought. There’s an exhaustion to her performance as the album begins to slow down to a halt, the way her fingers fumble to find the chords in the album’s closer, “We’ve All Gone To Sleep,” a track that has all but rid itself of the signature static.
If the album’s highlight “Heavy Water/I’d Rather Be Sleeping” is notable for any one reason, it’s that Harris’ lyrics almost break free of their murky surroundings. This is an issue with the album, but only one of its few; the mumbling is endearing (as on the verses in “Stuck”), but there’s a strength and importance behind her words that feels undermined by their incomprehensibility. Small quibbles for an album that is ultimately defined by its tone and Dead Deer
delivers. More than just a pretty acoustic record, Harris, through Grouper, has created a startlingly vivid and brooding shoegaze gem that works in spite of its length and first impressions. If my reaction to it is also overwhelmingly personal, then it’s only a testament to how strong I find the material to be. Dragging a Dead Deer Up a Hill
is not an album I’d recommend to just anyone; an audience will eventually find Grouper, and when they do, it’ll be more than well-deserved.