July 5, 2016
Released On June 10, 2008
Released By Type Records
It feels shameful to admit this, but it actually took me a while to catch on to Grouper, aka Liz Harris. Back in 2013 when The Man Who Died In His Boat came out, I glanced at the album cover and thought it looked like some overly serious indie-rock band in the vein of The National, something that at that time held no interest for me. How wrong I was. When her next album, Ruins, came out in 2014, I finally came to realize that I was actually missing out and decided to include the slightly older song “Being Her Shadow” from The Man Who Died in His Boat in a “new music” playlist I had. I set it to shuffle and, when “Being Her Shadow” came on, I stopped what I was doing and listened. It was so delicately beautiful, so unlike what I had assumed it would sound like for all these years, that I sat in my living room completely mesmerized for the next four minutes.
Cut to a year later and I’ve combed through as much of her musical output as I can over the last decade or so, which, for a musician as independent and removed from the music industry as Grouper, has taken more work than usual. I’m still not even close to getting my metaphoric and literal hands on all the various collaborations, installations, limited releases, et cetera that Harris has put out over the course of her career. But it’s worth it, because Harris and her music as Grouper is truly and utterly without equal. I know I’ve said this many times before, and at this point saying it in regards to anything can feel a bit cliche, but her music defies easy categorization or genre. It’s ambient, drone, folk, psych, pop, lo-fi, and more, depending on which album we’re talking about. And when an artist cultivates a sound and identity so singularly distinct that it will never be mistaken as anyone else — that’s when they deservedly rise above the glut of music we are exposed to in this age of music streaming, Bandcamp, festivals, curated playlists, and related artists suggestions.
Dragging A Dead Deer Up A Hill was released in 2008 and eventually became Grouper’s breakout record (thank God). The album title and cover are both hauntingly beautiful and well-suited to the music held within. I hesitate to use this particular figure of speech in regards to the kind of music Grouper makes, but no other metaphor is as apt — the opening one-two punch of “Disengaged” and “Heavy Water/I’d Rather Be Sleeping” is one of the greatest openings to any album, ever. The record opens with a wind-like static that grows steadily louder before blooming into a repetitive, child-like melody that is eventually enveloped by more static and drones in a wave of sound. “Disengaged” transitions seamlessly into “Heavy Water…,” probably the most accessible song here. You can actually make out the lyrics — Harris sings mostly a single repeated stanza of an “enormous love” that lifts her up above the tidal waves she desires to sink into. Both of these songs are arrestingly beautiful and vulnerable, and exemplify what is my favorite thing about Grouper: the intimacy inherent in her music.
For the most part, Harris’s vocals rarely rise above a mumbled whisper, forcing you to concentrate hard just to catch a word here and there. But when you do hear a line, or when she allows herself to sing just a bit clearer, it’s like she’s whispering a secret in your ear. If you listen closely, you can even hear Harris let out her breath at the end of “Heavy Water…,” a byproduct of the lo-fi recording style, but a beautiful detail nonetheless. You frequently hear her fingers moving across the frets of her guitar, static enter at the beginnings of songs from her recording methods, and a hissing click at the end of closing track “We’ve All Gone To Sleep” that might be a tape recorder. But it’s these perhaps unintentional details that highlight and add to the vulnerability and intimacy that are also found in her compositions and lyrics. There was one night I smoked too much and got way too high, vibed out to Darkside’s Psychic, and then put on Grouper’s Ruins. I fell back onto my sofa, closed my eyes, and sunk into the sounds as Harris’s whispers and piano and ambient drones wrapped themselves around me like a worn in quilt. As listening experiences go, it was practically transcendent. Let Grouper’s music carry you away into its waters as I did. You won’t regret it.
David Munro (@david_c_munro)
Idiosyncratic Avant-Garde Wanderer
Liz Harris demonstrating the ideal pose for listening to Grouper’s music.
I try to give albums at least a couple of listens before writing about them for this newsletter, and as a matter of convenience, I’ve started leaving on the repeat album setting — the arrows that form an oval, not the arrows that form an X — in Spotify. A weird side effect has emerged: I get lost in the track list. I can’t tell if I’m at the beginning, middle, or end much of the time. And while that can present problems — Where was that song I liked so much? — it’s a great way to experience Grouper’s music. Between the deep, expansive reverb, the structural elasticity of songs, the similarity of the overall sound of songs, and the temptation to let Liz Harris’ singing float by without deciphering the lyrics, Dragging A Dead Deer Up A Hill (A+ album name) can serve as an invitation to lose yourself. I listened to it on a Sunday morning run in Bay Head, New Jersey, sharing the side of the road with other runners, walkers, and pairs of people in flip flops carrying to-go coffee cups. I saw a crowd waiting outside a packed Mueller’s Bakery, and a kid across the street being taught how to catch crabs with a string and a chicken neck. All this cyclical behavior that kicks up with the warm weather and that will continue until the ocean swallows the area up, hopefully many years from now. I haven’t been swallowed up yet either, but listening to Grouper just got me a little closer to being OK with the fact that I will be.
I spent too long this week trying to work out what Liz Harris was actually singing about on Dragging A Dead Deer Up A Hill. Her vocals are sung at almost a whisper, and most of the time they’re difficult to decipher. But I sense the lyrics aren’t the point when it comes to Grouper, and instead beautiful melodies are the order of the day. I’ve never been the biggest fan of melodic psychedelic pop; even in those quiet, serene moments I have to myself, I prefer listening to folk or acoustic indie. But Grouper has produced such an intensely ethereal experience, it’s difficult not to get absorbed by the record. The album mostly consists of gentle piano and strummed acoustic guitar and it produces a relaxing ambient experience. Songs wash in and out like the tide of the ocean, staying just long enough that you get your feet wet, but not too much that you drown under the weight of the sound. Dragging A Dead Deer Up A Hill is a record like no other I’ve ever heard before. A comment I saw on the internet this week described it as a “45-minute lullaby,” with Harris’ voice rarely changing key as songs come and go. It’s certainly a beautiful record that evokes strong visuals, and it’s the wonder of what you’ll see that makes the experience all the more worth it.
James Peart (@choccyr)
Fascinated Binger Of Musical Zeitgeist
I don’t know Drake personally, but I’ll bet any amount of money that he either A) already loves Grouper’s Dragging A Dead Deer Up A Hill, or B) hasn’t heard it yet, but would instantly love it upon hearing it. The “OVO Sound,” as we’ve come to know it, is ambient, muffled, melodic, sometimes morose, sometimes triumphant, always emotional. Dragging is essentially a Drake instrumental album, minus the drums. It’s a 45 minute lullaby that, quite fittingly, ends with “We’ve All Gone To Sleep.” Have you ever heard one of those LP’s from the sixties called “Sounds Of The Sea?” It’s literally waves crashing on wax for fifteen minutes a side. Grouper employs the same hypnotic approach throughout this record. I imagine this is the album that angels play as background music at their dinner parties in Heaven. Then later, when it’s time to turn the fuck up, they play Drake ballads until sunrise. That’s assuming that sunrises are even a thing in Heaven.
A resplendence lurks in the murk. During my graduate studies, I had the fortune of participating in a workshop lead by Dutch photographer Leo Divendal. He impressed upon me the importance of the eye over the tool in creating work of interest. He delivered two axioms that have really stuck with me over the years: Firstly, respond to the urge to make — even if there is no apparent purpose, as it will reveal itself in time. Secondly and more pertinent here, the value of blurriness — how feelings of depth and mystery are sabotaged without it. Here we find an album rife with such depth and mystery. With the cardinal song “Disengaged,” Liz Harris carefully cultivates such a lovely patina of haze as sonic agitation gives way to gently driven rhodes piano and vocals so gorgeously submerged it evokes chills. Divendal’s caliginous imagery would serve a most amenable backdrop as melodies and accompaniments emerge into and recede from focus. It’s the perfect convergence of ambient erosion and pop bliss — a space bringing to mind passages by lo-fi aesthetes Max Richter and Benoît Pioulard. Trifling with clarity can be oh so prosaic. Here we find a more visceral resonance akin to Rothko, so if you require objective immediacy, you’ll find little here — and yet that’s what makes it nonpareil. At a time when albums like For Emma, Long Ago feel like bludgeoned horse pulp, Dragging A Dead Deer Up A Hill — ironically enough, sure — remains fresh and transcendent. Come drown sweetly in this soft tidal wave.
Here’s a basic reminder that it takes a careful & talented artist to create music this expansive & meticulous, even if it is somewhat “simple.”
It’s a rainy afternoon here in Virginia. It’s been overcast all day, and the water drips slowly and intermittently from the sky. I’ve had yet another long week full of too much activity and too little sleep, but today I’m finally able to laze around at home with nothing much to do in particular. So I’ve been listening to Grouper all afternoon, and even took a nap with this album playing at one point. It’s extremely appropriate to my mood. Having heard about Grouper for years, I never really checked out their work due to some of their common association points. However, now that I have heard this album a few times, I’ve realized that regardless of who Liz Harris fraternizes with, her work doesn’t really sound anything like Xiu Xiu or the Swans. Instead, I find myself picking up aspects of EMA, Jose Gonzalez, and early Iron & Wine from this album. Nothing here sounds like any one of those artists; indeed, it’s more like a strange crossbreed, in which the quiet, somewhat morose melodies of the latter two integrate with EMA’s bedroom tape explorations and focuses on the noises that surround her performance instead of the guitars and vocals themselves. There are times when the huge overlay of echo and reverb that dominates most of these songs gets stripped away, as on “A Cover One,” and you get to hear what amounts to a pleasant folk tune with only a minimum of post-performance effects. The other extreme is “Tidal Wave,” a humming vibe of a song in which wordless vocals dominate the mix and any guitars that exist are buried to the point of significant obliteration by the echo effects they’re run through. The happiest medium for me comes in my personal album highlight, “Heavy Water/I’d Rather Be Sleeping,” a beautiful acoustic folk song with only partly intelligible lyrics but a truly gorgeous vocal. The looping echoes that dominate this album are still present here, but the music gets room to breathe as well. The result is outstanding — a perfect soundtrack for a lazy, dreary day on which I’d rather be sleeping myself.
Sometimes to better understand the particular moment you’re observing, it’s best to look at an artist’s work as a long, continued expression. Pinning down someone like Liz Harris to just this one album, or even one art form, does her work a huge disservice. Much like Daniel A.I.U. Higgs, Harris is also a stunning visual artist. Her drawings and paintings explore repeating patterns that start to breakdown in a way that reminds me of a magnified look at patterns in nature. Dragging A Dead Deer Up A Hill has been a great soundtrack to our unusually rainy summer here in Virginia, and it’s a perfect entry point into her sonic world of hazy soundscapes and haunting vocals. If this album is blowing your mind and you don’t know which rabbit hole to explore, start with The Wire — the UK magazine, not the TV show — because Grouper is sort of their ideal artist. There are definitely parallels to my friend Nelly Kate‘s work too.
Liz Harris’ lyrics in her personal and intimate record Dragging A Dead Deer Up A Hill are focused on dreams and water and are often dark: “In dreams I’m moving through heavy water / the love is enormous/it’s lifting me up / I’d rather be sleeping / I’d rather fall into tidal waves / and go right where the deepest currents go” from “Heavy Water/I’d Rather Be Sleeping.” All the references to water and sleep made me think of tortured artist Edna Pontellier from Kate Chopin’s The Awakening, who, in the last page of the novella, kills herself by drowning in the Gulf of Mexico. She never had the love lifting her up, saving her from depression. Chopin wrote of the water calling out to Edna, “the voice of the sea is seductive, never ceasing, whispering, clamoring, humoring, inviting the soul the wander in the abysses of solitude.” Dragging A Dead Deer Up A Hill feels like that solitude, when one is lost in dreams and the waves and depth of the ocean seem relaxing and comforting. The final song, “We’ve All Gone To Sleep,” is a lullaby combining Harris’ ’60s folk sensibilities with her signature layered vocals, where she quietly sings “we’ve all gone to sleep / we’ve all gone to bed / we’re waiting for dreams to fill our heads.” For Harris, the sea is an escape from reality, which she would rather visit when she’s sleeping.
Shielded from the light, yet also emerging from the shadow. Caught between the two like a fleeting dream.
We all know that bedroom pop was invented in the 1880’s by an eccentric Frenchman whose best friends were his furniture, Cocteau, and Picasso — in that order. I’m talking, of course, about Erik Satie, in whose Gymnopedies, Gnossiennes, and Sarabandes you can find a template for the lonely lo-fi sounds of many artists who found a Tascam four-track (or a laptop with GarageBand) under their Christmas tree. In Satie’s house, there are many mansions and in a closet by the kitchen in one of them you might find Grouper. Or at least the Grouper of 2007 who recorded Dragging A Dead Deer Up A Hill — I understand she’s grown more extroverted in recent years. The opening cut is “Disengaged,” which is not so much a song as a mission statement. Beginning with an acetylene torch/breaking waves intro that gradually reveals a hazy acoustic guitar, it’s also the most Satie-esque, with a melodic gesture he would surely recognize. Grouper, the nom de drone of Liz Harris, never quite resolves that melody, however, increasing the impression that she’s really singing to herself. Even so, “Disengaged” is ironically the most outward facing of the songs on DADDUAH. For the rest of the album, I picture her with her back to the closet door, hair hanging over her face as she embraces her guitar like a life raft, strumming and singing as the harmonics gather around her in a protective cloud. Do not disturb. She might stop playing and that would be very sad indeed.
This week, the case for doing some research before writing has finally been driven home. I put this album on as I went for a walk on Tuesday night and I was almost immediately frustrated. I was feeling great about the instrumentation, but Liz Harris’s voice was so far back in the mix. I actually went so far as to check my headphones and volume control to make sure everything was plugged in and working correctly. I kept waiting for the fog to clear from the vocals, but it never happened. So I did a little research. I saw how the album was critically acclaimed and thought of as one of the best of the year it was released. And then I saw the thing that turned it all around for me. Under the genre section on the Wikipedia page for Grouper, it lists “Ambient, Drone, Folk Experimental, Dream Pop.” That was when it became clear to me that I had been listening to the album wrong. I listened to it several times more with these genres in mind, listening not for what she was singing but treating it almost like a song from a dream, where the singer is clearly singing, but the words can’t be understood, so you have to connect with how she’s singing. Letting the music wash over me, put me in a very relaxed, meditative state of mind and it became clear how beautiful it is. I love this album more with each listen and it’s all thanks to a little research to give it a little context.
My first impression of Dragging A Dead Deer Up A Hill was inspired by a practice that I exercise from time to time to initiate calm in the face of anxiety. Press your fingers against the bridge of your nose, close your eyes, breathe slowly and let your imagination drift from the pressures encapsulating you. For a moment, you can rise above any of the pressures that weigh you down. Liz Harris writes music that speaks to these moments. There is tranquility. There is haunting. There is beauty. There is release. For perhaps the first time since writing for Off Your Radar, Grouper left a new impression on me. Instead of deciphering lyrics or investigating backstories, I attempted to exist in the worlds that these songs inhabit. “Invisible” and “Tidal Wave” left me with a greater understanding for the intrinsic need for parallel identities. You crave companionship and long for those things. Yet, you still need the introversion as well. It creates a balance. “We’ve All Gone To Sleep” is a lullaby that prays for anything but nightmares when we fall asleep. Repeating the lines “We’ve all gone to sleep / We’ve all gone to bed / We’re waiting for dreams to fill our heads” and blurring it further as the album reaches its finale. The funny thing is that I wouldn’t even know what dreams a record like this would inspire in the first place. Dragging A Dead Deer Up A Hill isn’t a record you can shake easily. I imagine that I’ll be sitting around and fumbling ideas about it for weeks to come. And to know there is a greater extension of material to examine from Grouper, as well as more to discover about Harris, should be a long sonic journey ahead of me and that leaves me full of excitement.
One of the first major music conversations I ever had with David took place in his apartment when looking over his record collection in the middle of a party. We just stood there as my eyes scanned his shelf and talked about whatever artist popped into our heads. Bjork, Sufjan Stevens, Sky Ferreira. Most of them had us both in agreement about their greatness, though with some minor disagreements (“Hyperballad” is the best Bjork song, David — be real). But as the night went on, we quickly found out what artists we were in complete disagreement over and the first one, and perhaps the biggest, was Grouper. Honestly, I had given Grouper a fair chance. I had listen to The Man Who Died In His Boat around a dozen times in 2013 when it came out, just trying to figure out what made it so noteworthy. I never figured it out. I just couldn’t wrap my head around it and I have to admit — I had the exact same feeling when trying to digest this record over the last week. I even texted David asking for some paltry aspect to listen out for because I just had to be missing something. He responded, pretty thoroughly I might add, but even though I could understand what he was saying, I still couldn’t get it. Then yesterday happened. I had a million things to do on my ironic “day off” from work and spent most of the day behind a computer doing tedious busy work that slowly drove me insane. Normally, I’d put on a Focus/White Noise video I have bookmarked to help fight off the insanity, but instead, I decided to put on this record again. That’s when I finally understood the appeal. For me, this music can’t be focused on. You can’t be thinking about it. You just have to put it on in the background of something and just be. When it’s done, you’ll know what you felt, but if you stop and try and describe the moment, you’ve ruined the totality of the work. Just let it sail from section to section — don’t even worry about song title or what Liz Harris is trying to say, and you’ll be gifted a musical experience truly unique in its presentation. And truly beautiful as well. I still don’t quite “get” what everyone else is talking about — but at least I finally experienced something special with her music and that will always be the goal when trying out any new record.
The Golden Band by The American Analog Set
Chosen By Matt Klimas