20 Mar 2013
Review | Grouper
Grouper, The Man Who Dies In His Boat, Kranky
Originally laid down while she was recording 2008’s Dragging a Dead Deer Up a Hill, Grouper (performance moniker of the Portland-based Liz Harris) had plans to release these tracks for a separate album that she never released. Now, five years later, they have been released with the title The Man Who Died In His Boat.
The germ of the idea for this newest release was first established when the wreckage of a sailboat, its driver mysteriously vanished, washed ashore near to where Harris lived as a teenager. Harris investigated the wreck with her father, noticing the everyday objects left abandoned in the boat: clothing, maps, and coffee cups were strewn throughout the small boat. Harris described the event thusly in her press release:
“I remember looking only briefly, wilted by the feeling that I was violating some remnant of this man’s presence by witnessing the evidence of its failure. Later I read a story about him in the paper. It was impossible to know what had happened. The boat had never crashed or capsized. He had simply slipped off somehow, and the boat, like a riderless horse, eventually came back home.”
A more organic approach to noise is established in this record. The use of background sourced sounds plays a key element in establishing mood. The listener is transported to the fringes of distant memory. Harris sets the stage with the use of subtle, ambient build-up. I liken her to a lo-fi vocal delivery of Julee Cruise with the vision of Angelo Badalamenti, half-expecting to find Laura Palmer washed up along the beach.
The use of vocals are sparse and limited, barely distinguishable, like the whispered voices of ghost murmurings. It is not easily accessible, and therein lies its strength. The songs exist as part of a greater whole — a continuous narrative that builds and establishes itself. In a musical climate progressing more and more towards single zingers existing outside of the traditional album format, this is a refreshing and essential nod towards the fully immersive listening experience. Refusing to pander to the listener, this record demands listener engagement, unique and bold in its subtlety.
‘Vanishing Point’ acts as an eerie paranormal investigation to the heart of minimalism. The use of bare-bones tinkling piano keys is suspenseful and evocative, bringing to mind the atmosphere conjured by Broadcast from their soundtrack to Berberian Sound Studio. Harris achieves her own aesthetic by creating a deeply cinematic, post-modern evolution of grunge. Vocals swirl amongst the bracken, like an empty boat washed ashore along the muddy banks of the Wishkaw.
Egyptian singer Umm Kulthum (widely believed to be the greatest female singer in Arab music history) was known for repeating a single line repeatedly, subtly altering the intensity and emotive emphasis to explore one or many musical modal scales in order to bring her audiences into a spiritually euphoric state. She gradually reiterates the same singular note in ‘Vanishing Point’ from beginning to end, and in this meditative state, a euphoric experience equal to that which Kulthum explored can be had, albeit a distinctly more lo-fi one.
With album-closer ‘Living Room’ (clocking in at 2.22 minutes) serving as the only straight-up, vocal/guitar accompanied song, this record could potentially come off as tedious to some listeners. Being in the proper frame of mine is essential to this listening experience. As the big sister said in Almost Famous: “listen with a candle burning.” There’s no promises on seeing your future here, but there is potential for a revelation.