Review Summary: Grouper vs. My Attention Span
About six months ago I got the chance to see Grouper (a.k.a. Liz Harris) perform live, the second act of the day for the Saturday set of New York's edition of All Tomorrow's Parties Festival. Coming off the heels of Sufjan Stevens' hangover-alleviating Seven Swans set, Harris' show was arguably even more tranquil. Bathed in a purple light with calming images (movement of water, small dots, swirling shapes, etc.) projected directly behind her, she was armed only with her guitar and a heap of effects pedals lying at her feet . After my friend and I managed to scoot ourselves to the front (we had the ability to lean our elbows on the edge of the stage), we were lucky enough to hear Harris' soundcheck and I immediately knew we were in for something great. Though her playing would only last for a minute or so (sporadically interrupted by "Can we turn that up?...Yeah...alright...great, thanks."), the tidal waves of cooing vocals and formless guitar strums emanating from the stage's speakers were truly something to behold. Soon enough, the room was filled and Harris launched into her set. I couldn't tell you the names of any of the songs she played for her forty-five minute slot, nor could I very accurately explain what it sounded or felt like, either. What I can tell you, though, is that, in a day where Black Dice melted faces, Deerhunter brought the house down, and Animal Collective left you with eyespots for days, Grouper's serene show still managed to have a huge effect on me.
So, here I am in 2010, almost two years after the release of Grouper's most recent and most popular (relatively speaking) album, 2008's Dragging a Dead Deer Up a Hill, and, for a female drone artist, Harris ain't doin' all that bad. Sure, she's not exactly cracking the Billboard Hot 100, but Grouper has certainly gone places since her 2005 self-titled release, opening for Animal Collective, making appearances on year-end (or even decade-end) best-of lists, and even being featured on, uh, Skins? (Think British Degrassi.) Of course, even as Harris has been quietly making a name for herself, I've done quite the job in failing to check out any of her studio work, adding Dead Deer to my list of albums that are doomed to never be listened to until I get off my lazy ass and go to work , which I don't do very often. In fact, it was only a few weeks ago I finally decided that the mysterious glaring girl on the cover wasn't going to be able to take my bull*** much longer, so I gave in and gave the damn thing a spin for the first time, not exactly sure what to expect.
At first, I was disappointed. Really disappointed. While, in a live setting, Grouper's music seemed to overwhelm the listener with sonic intricacies, on record it seemed to be stripped down to, well, some chick and her guitar, drenched in uncompromising amounts of reverb. The confusing part about this is that, really, Grouper's live show and the album consist mainly of the same ingredients, assembled with most of the same effects and sense of atmosphere (though it's arguable that her songs contain less recognizable motifs and are more amorphous when performed live). Perhaps if I could set up Kutsher's Stardust Room's speaker system in my computer room, I would be able to successfully recreate that magical live setting, but, as it stood, I was simply--dare I say it--bored. After the atypically guitar-lacking opener "Disengaged" and the soothing "Heavy Water/I'd Rather Be Sleeping", I simply lost interest, feeling the rest of the album simply too homogeneous.
However, I also reached this conclusion with some caution: it seemed that, lately, I had constantly been dismissing albums as uninteresting and repetitive sans their first few songs (see: Dinosaur Jr's Farm), and I was afraid that it wasn't them, it was me. Had my musical attention span been negatively affected lately (perhaps a side-effect of "shuffle" overuse)? Was I contributing to the "death of the album" that I had always seen so many cynical music journalists rant about? Believe it or not, this was quite the troubling situation for me, until I remembered Robert Christgau's always-effective advice towards listeners of Yo La Tengo's And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out: "Play Loud".
This isn't to say that Dead Deer is the kind of crank-it-up-to-11 album that can only be experienced in its full, loud glory. In fact, it's quite the opposite: the album has so many subtleties, from the mumbled delivery of Harris' lyrics to the ghostly hums that highlight her guitar brushstrokes, that are so important in part because they can only be heard and understood to the keenest of ears. And, sure enough, I gave the album one last (louder) try, and some more nuances started making appearances that I hadn't noticed before. Intriguingly, as I started liking the record more, it also started going in the opposite direction of the live show, sounding more like "songs" than the formless jams I had associated her with before. Take, for example, "Fishing Bird (Empty Gutted in the Evening Breeze)": though it's dressed up in the gloomy acoustic-guitar-and-ambiance combo that dominates most of Grouper's music (and this album), at its core, we have a song, with a melody and chords and a structure you can follow. Hell, if you bother yourself to Google the lyrics, you might even be able to sing along to it!
Many other tracks started making the same transformation, whether it be the multi-tracked coos of "Stuck" or the disconcerting chord progressions of "A Cover Over". However, this is where I must admit something: Dead Deer, despite making small steps toward my liking, has yet to fully connect with me, as her live show did instantly. Perhaps it's the fact that there's something unsettling in the way it straddles song and ambience, or perhaps it's just that I find it pretty-but-not-pretty-enough. Whatever it is, something is keeping the album as something I can appreciate but not enjoy all that much; a piece of art that is better to standback and look at than to examine up close.
: Here's a little sampler of what it looked like: http://icecreamman.com/wp-content/gallery/atp-09-grouper/atp_nyc_2009_grouper_camino_001.jpg
: Currently on that list: Modest Mouse's The Lonesome Crowded West, a bunch of Nirvana records, Pavement's Brighten the Corners, Circulatory System's Signal Morning (another result of a positive All Tomorrow's Parties experience), and many, many more!
: This is the one that was featured on Skins.
: For the full (and characteristically terse) review, go here: http://www.robertchristgau.com/get_artist.php?name=yo+la+tengo