“Call Across Rooms”, from Grouper‘s forthcoming album Ruins, begins with a sound that will be very familiar to fans of Liz Harris’ music: a bed of tape hiss from her four-track machine. But the music that follows signals a new sound and approach.
“I have a present to give you, when we finally figure it out”, Harris whisper-sings with a kind of detached melancholy, her voice unadorned by the layers of echo and reverb that have been hallmarks of all previous Grouper releases. On her debut album, 2005’s Way Their Crept, the vocal treatments were so heavy and densely layered that Harris’ voice was completely abstracted, to dizzying effect. “Ethereal” is commonly used to describe ambient or shoegaze music (genres often cited in reviews of her music, though it doesn’t fit neatly into either), but- and this is gonna sound silly- early Grouper records can induce in the listener the aural equivalent of huffing on actual ether. It’s heady stuff, more deserving of the term “hypnagogic” than the recent musical mini-movement that adopted that word for its name.
Harris has been gradually reducing this haze effect, bringing her songs down closer to earth, with Dragging A Dead Deer Up A Hill and The Man Who Died In His Boat (recorded at the same time but released years apart) occasionally approaching something like straightforward, home-recorded folk-rock. For Ruins, made during a 2011 arts residency in Portugal, Harris recorded herself playing upright piano and singing into a single stereo microphone. No guitars, no effects pedals.
If “Call Across Rooms” is an indication, the only reverb or echo to be heard will be natural reflections from the walls of the room in which she played. Throughout the song, Harris sings her melody in unison with the piano, which works as a surprisingly effective proxy for the gauzy vocal treatments of previous offerings. Despite the austere approach, “Call Across Rooms” is unmistakably Grouper, pulling off her trademark trick of seeming simultaneously pastoral and astral, though leaning toward the former more than ever before. As with all Grouper music, there are no sharp edges, no brightness, no sudden moves; only gentle tones, out-of-focus sound sources, sleepy pacing, and a loud, comforting floor of tape hiss and room noise.
Ruins will be released on Kranky on October 31.
1 Made of Metal
3 Call Across Rooms
8 Made of Air