Grouper: Dragging a Dead Deer Up a Hill

Any new release from the UK imprint Type is cause for celebration and this captivating Grouper opus from Portland-based Liz Harris doesn't disappoint in that regard. It's different from much of Type's past output, however, as few of its releases have concentrated on the style of lo-fi voice-and-guitar balladry that dominates the haunting Dragging a Dead Deer Up a Hill.

“Disengaged” gently emerges from a billowing cloud of dust with Harris's blurry voice accompanied by shuddering guitar and piano, and the song's funereal tempo and out-of-focus sound design reinforces the music's foggy character. The smoke clears with the onset of the second song, “Heavy Water/I'd Rather Be Sleeping,” though one still strains to make out the lyrics. No matter: it's Harris's sound, not the words, that casts the spell on her third Grouper outing (following Way Their Crept and Wide), and specifically her voice, whether heard solo or in layers of harmony. She could be singing about the stock exchange for all it matters when sirenesque beauties such as “Stuck” and “Invisible” roll into view. Here and elsewhere, Harris's voice, a breath-laden murmur, feels like it's welling up from the deepest recesses of the psyche and gently whispering in one's mind. Though the ghost of a piano is occasionally heard (e.g., dancing lightly in the background during “Traveling Through a Sea”), the songs are fundamentally arranged for guitar and voice only, yet never does the sound feel lacking. “Wind and Snow” may reduce her voice to a barely-audible hum, but the song's hymn-like ambiance nevertheless remains entrancing.

There's some hint of association with the psych-folk movement but Harris's songs are dreamier and more lullaby-like—closer in spirit to Mazzy Star than Animal Collective, let's say. That she pretty much hews to that style throughout the disc might lead one to expect that sameness would set in and the music would grow tiresome. In fact, the effect is entirely the opposite: by staying with the acoustic dream-pop style, Harris deepens the music's haunting character, and no jarring contrasts arise to disrupt the carefully-wrought mood.

August 2008