Friday, November 14, 2008
High Places - High Places
Thrill Jockey Records.
SCQ Rating: 67%
Sometimes reviews come easy; you hear it four times over a weekend and have your entire case mentally mapped out. More often you elbow yourself into it, critically eyeing all corners and, like you would a house, ensuring it stands solid. And then there are times you spend a month and a half struggling to earn whatever discipline you’re lacking in order to comprehend it, and if you’re lucky, your efforts make the record in question all the better. In the case of High Places, my efforts have taught me this: some records will keep you at distance, regardless of your intentions. Sometimes there’s just a disconnect.
I feel like a failure to therefore state that the whole affair, which barely clocks in at half an hour, feels inconsequential, like a talented student unable to find their calling. Since High Places’ identity is so wrapped up in their use of percussion - a meticulously cluttered assortment of kitchen-ware clapping - it distracts these songs from achieving any transcendence; too slow to dance to, too intangible to chill out to. This attention to rhythmic detail also derails any permanent sense of melody, as a ton of cool effects and keys filter in then out of the mix, leaving us with promising whispers of could’ve-beens. These brief teases are most indicative in segues like ‘Papaya Year’ and ‘You in Forty Years’, which lay down awesome beds of melody which are abandoned instead of built upon. Most unnerving is their technique of latching any melodic accountability to Mary Pearson’s vocals, which are coyly unconscious, as if someone recorded her while she dusted the bedroom unaware. Sometimes they work, like in the fully-developed ‘Namer’ or the vocal-hook of ‘A Field Guide’, but often times Pearson sounds uninterested, leaving us with halfhearted tunelessness like in the otherwise-cool, Kahlil Gibran-esque ‘Gold Coin’. Likewise, much of High Places feels like it’s afraid of committing to a sound.
Having that last paragraph penned, I now suspect my disappointment is half imaginary; it’s true, I expected High Places to champion itself a more emotive, Four Tet-leaning outfit. After all, I was listening to ‘From Stardust to Sentience’, a mind-blowing fusion of ambience and punchy beat-patterns. Even now, a month and a half later, I can appreciate High Places as an accumulative record where from ‘The Storm’ onward, it grows into its fragile frame like some undisturbed wildflower. It might only fully flourish by its final track but in no way is that a poor reflection on the rest of the album. Slight disappointment aside, this remains the most provocative debut album Thrill Jockey has released in years, one equal parts lovely and jarring, that challenges the virtue of patience.