Thursday, January 31, 2013

Grouper - "The Man Who Died In His Boat" (2013) [Kranky]

Nothing really fulfills my need for drifting, trance-inducing folk music in the same way Liz Harris's Grouper does. Much like the rest of the world, I fell in love within the first few minutes of her 2008 LP Dragging A Dead Deer Up A Hill and haven't looked back since. With Grouper, Harris smolders and crackles quietly as the rest of the world sleeps soundly in their tents. With each new release an experiment in audio vulnerability, be it the stark nudity of an unaccompanied voice or the simplicity of a blurry, 4-track-recorded guitar and voice elegy, it is Grouper who embodies every extreme found within the world of dreamy music.

The title The Man Who Died In His Boat originates from a story of Harris's childhood in which an abandoned sailboat beached itself behind her home. She dwells upon the circumstances - whose boat was it? How did this sailboat come to be abandoned? Did its owner die? The answers are all lost with the ages, an abstraction which pervades Harris's body of work, but unveils itself in its most balanced form in The Man Who Died In His Boat. A collection of unreleased songs which were recorded in the same sessions as Dragging A Dead Deer Up A Hill, The Man's song-based gait echoes its sister album, but with an atmosphere similar to a delicate smudging of a freshly-drawn ebony portrait - though the idea is still noticeable, it is the further blurring of the set boundaries which makes the distinction between the The Man and Dragging A Dead Deer all the more clear. Harris's guitar playing, an array of simple fragments of songwriting, often left rudimentary and without any sort of harmonic expansion, possesses its characteristic distance, blurred with a smattering of delay, but it is with the treatment of her voice that The Man transcends clarity and becomes the drone. Endlessly looped and hidden under multiple layers of delay, Harris's voice transforms from angelic to extraterrestrial, functioning more as a drone than the source of melody on previous efforts. Again, I return to the "balance" I had referenced earlier - Dragging A Dead Deer Up A Hill was by far Harris's most concrete work of songwriting, a source of clarity lost among the haze, and yet the A I A diptych which followed was a return to the hyper abstraction of old, manifesting overall as works of "drone" rather than "dronefolk." The Man Who Died In His Boat falls somewhere in the middle of those two eras, floating around on a cloud all its own.

Though The Man Who Died In His Boat technically isn't a new Grouper album, it is the answer we needed to the question which resided between Dragging A Dead Deer Up A Hill and A I A. How did Liz Harris end up in a realm of such disparate abstraction? It is here, and it is exactly what we Grouper fans needed to hear...and yet, even more questions arise. Did the man ever reunite with his boat? Is he still among the living? How has Grouper evolved since A I A? Our storyteller's uncertainty is apparent, and it is the most morose sort of lovely.

The Man Who Died In His Boat, as well as the fourth LP repress of Dragging A Dead Deer Up A Hill are currently available via Kranky.


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