Review Summary: L.A. harpist's new album, produced by Slowdive's Neil Halsted, is her best yet.
If you’ve heard harp on a recent high-profile alt/indie record, there’s a good chance you were hearing Mary Lattimore. In the past few years, she’s added delicate and sweeping strums to songs by Kurt Vile, Jónsi, and Thurston Moore just to name a few, carving out a cozy niche as a go-to harpist for alternative acts. Her contributions are often hushed but crucial, revealing a considerable strength in songwriting which has been more thoroughly explored through her solo career. For her fourth album Silver Ladders
, Lattimore continues her collaborative streak by enlisting Slowdive’s Neil Halsted as producer, who also provides his chilly guitars on almost every track. The duo have cracked open her stoic music into more freely flowing territory—her graceful compositions remain as quietly powerful and melancholic as ever, but are presented with more complex hues than her previous work.
You can likely glean a reasonable idea of what’s going on here just from the fact that it’s a harp-centric ambient album: celestial tones and chords plucked out and reverberating through space, sometimes swathed by clouds of bleary keyboard work. Indeed, this is the prevailing musical theme throughout the record, as only a handful of minutes don’t prominently feature harp. Despite this, Lattimore teases an impressive array of sounds from the instrument. Low tones spread into bedrock for the other elements, and high-pitched plucks almost act as a percussive element. Strings are hammered and buzz chaotically, and her melodies are sometimes so layered and coated with effects that it morphs into something closer to a synthesizer. Likewise, the other instrumental work expands upon Lattimore’s previous releases: the title track boasts some of the album’s sweetest harp melodies swirling over a pallid church organ, and late album standout “Chop on the Climbout” pairs a warm analog synth pad with whirling gusts of noise that takes her sound into a newly jagged direction. While previous Lattimore albums emphasized the harp while padding out the mix with muted keyboards, Ladders
occasionally moves toward the lurching post-rock of Labradford or Hood with frequent and wonderful use of heavily effected guitars, crystalline synthesizer work, and ominous drones.
The album strikes a balance between more deliberate compositions and free-wheeling improvisational pieces, the latter of which is best represented by the ten-minute epic “Til a Mermaid Drags You Under”: shimmering harps are eclipsed by low pulses until a single dissonant guitar note from Halstead takes the track into frightening depths, all before it ends with one of the most beautiful stretches on the record. Lattimore and Halsted demonstrate an easy chemistry together on these improvised tracks, trading off and building on each other’s parts with a glowering assuredness. Additionally, the record conteains some of Lattimore’s most impactful compositions to date, such as the blissful, guitar-centric “Sometimes He’s In My Dreams”, or “Thirty Tulips” which closes the album on a glum note, as multiple harps pelt down on a rolling drone. Perfectly produced by Halsted, Ladders
is a quintessential headphone album: he provides ample space for Lattimore’s searching harp melodies and groaning synths to wander unabated, the instruments frequently coated with heavy tape delay, crashing into each other in orbit.
In the best way, the music on Silver Ladders
wanders. That feeling even extends to the album artwork, which shows a room that might exist in the same house depicted on the cover of 2018’s Hundreds of Days
; it feels like Lattimore is slowly guiding us through her world, forcing the listener to focus on the minute details. The room on this cover contains a miniature version of our Solar System, a small wonder in a mundane space—not entirely dissimilar to how it can feel listening to Silver Ladders
. It’s a tremendous step forward, and her best album to date.