Through the Pastoral, Darkly
Grouper's Haunting Hymns of Ethereal Gravity
American composer David Behrman once observed, "The world is filled with busy, noisy music—and noise in general—and I'd rather contribute to the quieter end of the spectrum." Portland guitarist/vocalist Grouper (aka Liz Harris) would concur with that dronecentric avant-gardist.
Sometimes it's the most quiet, ethereal music that hits you with the heaviest impact. Sometimes the Velvet Underground's "Sunday Morning" will slay you harder than "Sister Ray" and the Beatles' "Good Night" will move you more than "Helter Skelter." Sometimes a whisper affects you more severely than a scream. Grouper has proven herself to be one of the most sublime practitioners of transforming quietude into profoundly meaningful listening experiences.
Growing up in Northern California, Harris was exposed to the teachings of G. I. Gurdjieff, an Armenian mystic who advocated subsuming the ego in altruistic communal living. There she gained an appreciation for nature; now she's a solo artist in Portland's thriving underground-music scene, but Gurdjieff's tenets seem to rein in Harris's desire to foster a cult of personality.
Judging from her releases' artwork and some of her song and album titles, Grouper could conceivably be slotted into the freak-folk movement. And Harris probably knows and likes some of the artists who get lumped into that subgenre. But her music is too unearthly to be properly classified as folk, no matter how freaky—unless we expand folk to mean the soundtrack of dreams, the aural equivalent of spores, the wordless plaints of wraiths.
Grouper's debut album, Way Their Crept (2005, Free Porcupine Society; reissued by Type), features Harris's oneiric coo wispily drifting amid much-delayed guitar vapor, often rippling in concentric circles of gentle reverb. This music hovers and shimmers in midair, haunting and taunting you with its sheerest-of-sheer textural beauty. The songs aren't really the type you hum, though you can probably approximate their contours if you really concentrate. Rather, these largely amorphous hymns conjure feelings of drifting anomie, as well as a kind of enveloping comfort, as if you're hearing your mother sing a lullaby to you while you hang suspended in amniotic tranquility.
Some listeners will dismiss Way Their Crept as dull, perhaps not even worthy of being called "music." Of course, compositions without beats and discernible lyrics will always face an uphill challenge with most people. But to those blessed with long attention spans and a predilection for music that eschews the tyranny of meter and verse/ chorus/verse, artists like Grouper offer a free-floating balm for tense, grim times.
Grouper's next two full-lengths, Wide (2006, Free Porcupine Society) and Cover the Windows and the Walls (2007, Root Strata), continue the dreamy drift of Way Their Crept, with Harris creating the illusion of multiplying her voice infinitely into the receding horizon. She strums a guitar here, but the chords are mostly faint, muted to a subliminal thrum or similarly delayed into gauzy dispersion. Much like Bristol, England, shoegaze band Flying Saucer Attack and the most weightless moments on My Bloody Valentine's Loveless, Harris achieves the paradox of creating light, airy sounds that exert an undeniable gravity.
These releases exude a hazy, rural brand of psychedelia, but it's more of an oxygen/nature high than it is a senses-altering psilocybin trip. Folks may not freak to them, but they'll emerge from their presence feeling changed—and maybe even cleansed.
Grouper's Dragging a Dead Deer up a Hill (2008, Type; cue "bambient" pun) can be construed as her breakthrough work, inasmuch as an 8.2 Pitchfork review and placement on that popular website's Top 50 Albums of 2008 can dramatically elevate one's profile. Beyond that, though, Harris has added clarity to her production, so that you can decipher about 23 percent of her lyrics instead of past works' zero. Also, her acoustic guitar actually sounds like what most expect of said instrument. In fact, "Heavy Water/I'd Rather Be Sleeping" boasts a melody that will likely please some non-mainstream-radio decision makers.
On Dragging a Dead Deer up a Hill, Grouper miniaturizes Cocteau Twins' mellow melodic grandeur to bedroom-sized proportions, and she comes off as a more traditional balladeer. By lifting the veil of effects she'd liberally used before, Harris reveals herself to possess a gorgeous, diaphanous voice—although obviously not as acrobatic as Liz Fraser's—and a deft way with melancholy tunesmithing.
It's apparent that, just a few albums into her career, Grouper is on her way to joining such masters of beatless bliss as William Basinski, Brian Eno (Discreet Music, On Land), and fellow Portland artists Eluvium and Valet (Honey Owens). Even intimacy-loving introverts need figureheads, and Grouper is poised to become a key artist in this loose coalition of back-to-nature (and the womb) troubadours.