Grouper
Dragging a Dead Deer Up a Hill


3.0
good

Review

by Alex Robertson STAFF
March 29th, 2010 | 48 replies | 6,458 views


Release Date: 2008 | Tracklist

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 [1]. 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 [2], 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"[3], 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"[4].


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.


[1]: 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

[2]: 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!

[3]: This is the one that was featured on Skins.

[4]: For the full (and characteristically terse) review, go here: http://www.robertchristgau.com/get_artist.php?name=yo+la+tengo



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Lewis P. STAFF (4.5)
Dragging a Dead Deer Up a Hill is not an album I’d recommend to just anyone; an audience will even...


Comments:Add a Comment 
robertsona
Staff Reviewer
March 29th 2010



14990 Comments


note: originally written as a blog post. as it is, it's not exactly typical of my 'reviews' and my read strangely if you approach it as such. yes, i have footnotes. don't i suck!

also, apologies to lewis >

robertsona
Staff Reviewer
March 29th 2010



14990 Comments


oh yeah i also didnt format this, so imagine it with a bunch of words/album names/television show names in italics

i'll do it later maybe



mynameischan
Staff Reviewer
March 29th 2010



17920 Comments


this review vs. my attention span

robertsona
Staff Reviewer
March 29th 2010



14990 Comments


normally i'd agree but that seems to imply that people actually read reviews.

mynameischan
Staff Reviewer
March 29th 2010



17920 Comments


HAYOOO

Electric City
Staff Reviewer
March 29th 2010



15727 Comments

Album Rating: 4.5

nice

Digging: Alvvays - Alvvays

YouAreMySilence
March 29th 2010



3727 Comments

Album Rating: 5.0 | Sound Off

Record is amazing.

SeaAnemone
March 29th 2010



19754 Comments


coorect, robertsona.

Digging: Towers - Bel Air Highrise Plantation

AggravatedYeti
March 29th 2010



7684 Comments

Album Rating: 4.0 | Sound Off

robertsonaaaaaaaaaaaaaa.

robertsona
Staff Reviewer
March 29th 2010



14990 Comments


dont tase me

SeaAnemone
March 29th 2010



19754 Comments


bro

Athom
Staff Reviewer
March 29th 2010



17200 Comments

Album Rating: 4.5

ok, what the fuck is wrong with you? seriously

robertsona
Staff Reviewer
March 29th 2010



14990 Comments


huh? if this is based purely on rating well the review is just 1 off from yours so it's not that big a deal as far as i can see

but if it's something else then

mynameischan
Staff Reviewer
March 29th 2010



17920 Comments


i think he means just in general

robertsona
Staff Reviewer
March 29th 2010



14990 Comments


well shit.

robertsona
Staff Reviewer
March 29th 2010



14990 Comments


the first two songs are easily my favorites

joshuatree
Emeritus
March 30th 2010



3743 Comments


ugh love this shit

Brokenjewel
March 30th 2010



1247 Comments


Just heard this for the first time. Very awesome.

Lucid
Contributing Reviewer
March 30th 2010



7021 Comments

Album Rating: 4.5

album is awesome

Digging: Shabazz Palaces - Lese Majesty

Ghostechoes
March 30th 2010



1353 Comments

Album Rating: 4.5

I love this album.



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