Grouper – Ruins (Kranky, 2014)

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Ruins is the latest release of Grouper’s Liz Harris, another feather in a rather predictable Indie Folk/Drone cap that she’s been cultivating for around 9 years now. I’ll be honest that I’m often excited but a little hesitant approaching new Grouper work because of its tendency to be, well, a little on the unsurprising side, and whilst Ruins may not really be a deviation towards innovation, it’s certainly a beautiful and emotional record that knows its place within the niche well. Recorded in 2011 in Portugal during an artists’ residency there and whilst mourning the recent loss of a relationship, Ruins unwinds lamenting sequences of sad piano and ethereal vocal lines.

Opener “Made of Metal” is little more than a mild introduction, a dark and delicate segue from silence into the warm Southern nights of Portugal, proceeding on little more than the barely-there recordings of the local wildlife and a light drone current to transport us through time and space. Things become real with “Clearing” as the piano is introduced for the first time, and while certainly not as experimental it’s definitely got an AIA sort of vibe to its methodical, whispery vocals and circular piano. It’s our first taste of loneliness and it’s rather solemn and introspective, the vocals paper thin and just hiding tantalisingly out of view, thoughts barely breaching the surface of the mind. Pre-release single “Call Across Rooms” follows it up with something of a love song, albeit tired and lost in earnest and plaintive piano strokes that mask the lyrics in their light attack; “-maybe we’ll figure it out” Liz barely whispers in one moment of clarity, hoping that things can be undone.

“Labyrinth” and “Holofernes” break up this already rather short album up with beauteous piano solo interludes, with “Labyrinth” lost in some unenthusiastic and sad corner of our mind, slowly losing its coherence and losing sight of itself as the strokes become more sporadic and decayed, its energy to feel becoming increasingly sapped. “Holofernes” meanwhile has a touch of the biblical vengeance of its namesake, dreaming of inflicting her own emotional torture on her lost half for a brief moment, the faded piano caked in cassette fuzz and unfurling its dystopic notions. It’s immediately juxtaposed by the apologetic and lonely “Holding”, perhaps the best piece of the album for me.

“It’s in the morning when the sadness comes”,

Liz admits to us, those warm and quiet moments where she realises there’s nobody at her side and we slowly come to and remember why. This gauzy introspection spins out for a delicious 8 minutes, whispering from her lonely apartment from behind the piano about all those little desires and wishes and moments passed, lulling us and herself slowly to sleep before exhaustion comes and the sad thundery rains outside serenade us finally into a restful, albeit lonely, sleep, which is brought to us neatly in the evocative 11 minute closer of “Made Of Air”. Created in 2004 and summoned from the archives (from even before her debut), you have to wonder what other gems Liz has been sitting on from the last decade or more that’s yet to see the light of day. We’re finally allowed some peace here as distal and smeared piano and guitar drones ebb and flow through the mix, crafting a delicate and fuzzy dreamworld that we’ve escaped into to avoid facing reality. It’s a gorgeously peaceful, wandering and minutely exquisite piece that manages to seem both infinitesimal and all encompassing as at the same time being tiny and hovering on the cusp of barely existing at all.

It’s hard for me to get really excited about this one but at the same time it’s pretty hard to deny just how gorgeous it actually is. Liz has established her meta now, she knows exactly where she’s at and how to get the most out of her music; sure, whatever, it’s a sound that we’ve pretty much all heard before but, the way that it’s executed and the honesty and intimacy of the production and vocals makes this just a little bit special. Fans of hers are almost certainly going to enjoy the continuity and the consistency displayed here but I think this is a rather touching and affecting release that can be enjoyed by those who listen to Singer/Songwriters or Ambient with even only passing interest.

Julie Fowlis – Biodh an Deoch Seo ‘n Laimh Mo Ruin (Single, 2007)

Writing is hard, I think people don’t give it the credit it deserves. It takes a conscious, physical effort for me to produce these reviews, to make sure I don’t cripple the grammar and keep them informative as well as concise, but not dry and turgid. Peculiarly enough, I find it the hardest to write about the music I like the most; trying to assign words to emotions is the most challenging aspect of any review and I frequently default to waffling in order to compensate as I aimlessly focus on every minute detail in panic. It’s for that reason that I try to avoid talking about works like Biodh an Deoch because I’m terrified that I’ll completely fail to vocalise my thoughts and not inspire anyone to listen to, what is almost unquestionably, one of my favourite tracks of all time. A year ago almost to the day was the first time I heard this track and fell in love; since then, last.fm tells me I’ve scrobbled it some 25o times, so the reality is I’ve probably listened to this one track maybe around 350 times in the last 12 months, which is a pretty scary thought in all honesty. It seems strange to me that of all things this would be the track that I would love above all others, but in many ways I suppose it makes perfect sense.

Whilst not strictly a single, it appeared on Julie’s 2007 debut LP Mar A Tha Mo Chridhe, or “As My Heart Is”, a record sung entirely in Scottish Gaelic and comprised of classic Scottish folk songs and melodies but with a certain, more modern, twist to them. All of her albums are the same, and she has recently released a new album just this year called Gach Sgeul that I would heartily recommend, but I digress. Biodh an Deoch, or The Drink Would Be In My Love’s Hand, is a really beautiful, earnest little number. Comprised of only eight, two line verses it’s a remarkably simple and straightforward song filled with wist and longing, talking of the distance and separation between her and her love, of his safe passage and ultimate return, of wishing to be by his side again.

The studio version is remarkably pared back instrumentally; employing only the acoustic guitar and bouzaki alongside Julie’s voice, they keep the track straightforward and intimate, being propulsive when necessary but knowing exactly when to dial things down in the more emotionally crucial moments. It’s this subtle and intelligent instrumentation coupled with Julie’s expressive voice that I think make this piece so powerful, even to the non-Gaelic speakers, of which there are many. It’s perfectly clear in the final two verses that there is a shift in the seriousness of the lyrics, and a cursory glance at a translated version proves the point;

Though I am here in Coll I long to go to Rhum

And from there to Uist, were I to get my wish

It switches effortlessly from quiet, sad and heartfelt to desirous and empowered in the space of a few seconds and it gives me shivers every time I hear it. The fact that I don’t understand the language being spoken is oftentimes irrelevant with Julie’s music as the flow and suggestiveness of her voice is sufficient to emotionally guide us through its various peaks and troughs. I think it is that fundamental lingual divide that makes this piece so fascinating to me, the fact that music and the manner of speech has the power to overcome the limitations of not understanding what someone is saying. In many ways it doesn’t really matter what’s being said in the end, it’s enough to know that it’s earnest and significant in some capacity, and I think it’s executed perfectly here. It’s hard for me to specifically define why I think this track is so astonishing but perhaps some of you might find something here you find interesting.

 

Keaton Henson – Romantic Works (2014)

Romantic Works

Keaton Henson is perhaps best known for his heart-breaking Indie Folk past records, works that used his vocal talent to put across ideas and emotions and tell tales of love lost. So it’s interesting then that in the surprise arrival of self-released Romantic Works, Henson has decided to forgo his usual style and craft an album capable of standing up on its own emotionally whilst leaving the lyrical content at the wayside. Refreshing as it is, and despite its relatively conventional and not-wholly-unique performance, it’s still perhaps one of the most touching records of the year, and at only 30 minutes long, manages to say a great deal in a relatively short space of time.

Forged largely from Henson’s piano and Ren Ford’s cello, it breaks open to the janglings and tunings of preparatory opener “Preface”, a warm-up session that buckles down its drone lines and chaotic instrumentation rapidly to bring the rest of the album with its closing. But it’s hard to get a lock on proceedings following its simplicity, the album itself moving from one romantic fugue or encounter to the next; “Elevator Song” is a neatly gradual introduction to the reality of the record’s sonic style, marrying a duotone piano riff to the rising stringed drones of the cello as they lift each other out of the mix in a growing wave, slow and measured but breaking free of the confines of its early simplicity. It’s sparseness and desire for expansion come around again in the locked in “Petrichor” a little later on; unquestionably my favourite track of the album it sits wistfully in its chair by the window, watching and listening to the gentle rainfall outside and spinning out delicate pulses of aged and tired, flat piano. It’s got a quiet and subdued wistfulness, mesmerised by the confining inclement weather outside, painfully aware of its loneliness.

This mildly melancholic, solitary vibe is continued like a vein through a few other pieces as well; aptly titled penultimate piece “Nearly Curtains” is a reflective and introspective little number that’s driven by the haunting and faded cries and chatter of a distant child’s voice, a desire to return to those naive, innocent and simple times expressed through sad stringed drones and thick layers of ancient, suppressive reverb. “Josella” too has a streak of melancholia running through its initial sequences, with especially pained cello bringing in a rather sharp air amidst thick and wailing waves of distal reverb, mournful and crushed. It pulls through slightly in its latter half, however, as it pushes it all away with a mild textural and temporal crescendo that serves to just take the edge of things a little bit, the piano softening things just slightly.

The remaining works could be argued to be vaguely optimistic, or at the very least hopeful. The gorgeous “Field” is perhaps the most expansive piece as it marries gorgeously delicate currents of birdsong against quiet and contemplative cello, creating a bigger but not bolder atmosphere ahead of itself as it drinks in the view and rests in peaceful and quiet reflection rather contentedly. Okay, it still retains some level of loneliness but there’s a certain distracting force at work that takes our mind off things for a brief while. The same is true of predecessor “Healah Dancing” as it carves a deliciously solitary but rather cathartic slow-dance piece out of measured cello and melancholic piano lines, the soundstage padded by distant clatterings and tinklings as we populate the cathartic daydream with more fantasy creations, crowned by a wave of splendid but rather morose crescendo as reality rushes back.

Perhaps most importantly is the piano dominated beauty “Earnestly Yours”, a precise and deliberately crafted gem that carves out the measured pen strokes and the words behind the lines through the expressive tinkling alone. Like many of the tracks, it has the same idiosyncratic burst of energy towards its closing moments, gaining a brief confidence and momentum in an emotional burst that’s just heart-breaking to listen to, a wave of suppressed love and tenderness that we’re being forced to leave behind for lack of reciprocation. And it’s tempting to think that this record focuses on a single individual, an ex-partner that is pushing Henson through the degrees of separation, but the reality is this is a smeared and averaged work that highlights the sad truth of it; loss and heart-break is wrenching no matter who or what the circumstances, it just becomes a case of same shit, different story, but there’s still happiness to be found within one’s self that we must hold on to no matter what.