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.

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.

Neutral Milk Hotel @ Manchester Albert Hall, 18/5/2014

It’s hard, sitting down some hours later after a performance and writing it up after travelling and sleeping; part of me almost wishes I took some form of notes or something for reference but that’s just a ridiculous notion, especially at a Neutral Milk Hotel performance. Once again, I’m not going to be an entirely useful resource to any hard core fans in this post; I’ve listened to In The Aeroplane Over The Sea a tonne of times but I’ve never been hardcore enough to really delve into their older material. For the uninitiated, NMH can only be described as a cult status Indie Folk Rock band from the States; they only ever released two LPs in the late Nineties and only the aforementioned ITAOTS ever truly garnered critical acclaim. On first glance the music is, dare I say it, relatively unimpressive in recording, mostly live takes with varying degrees of fidelity, especially in their earlier work, and lead singer Jeff Mangum’s vocals are not perhaps the world’s greatest; they’re ambitious, quixotic, but I’ll be damned if there isn’t something just incredibly drawing and heartfelt in all of it that’s just totally indefinable. There’s a huge amount of energy and it’s so earnest, especially in the lyrics, it’s pretty hard to avoid getting drawn in just listening to the album let alone the live set.

I actually, for once, don’t have anything entertaining to say about the journey itself; I know, I almost feel disappointed that I don’t have any displays of idiocy for a change, but I came too well prepared this time; I was not prepared to let anything fuck up when the prospect of overnighting in Manchester was merely a knife edge away (which I assume the couple in front of us had to suffer after they discovered they booked coach tickets…for the day before). The fates were with me it seemed and everything went off without a hitch, even if we couldn’t work out how to navigate the damn venue and am apparently completely blind to the giant cloakroom.

I dont want to be too mean to opening act Laetitia Sadier & co., but I would be lying if I said that I enjoyed the performance. I’ve never listened to the project she’s probably best known for, Stereolab, and I don’t really have any intention of doing so following yesterday either. It wasn’t terrible, they were only a warmup act and everyone seemingly except the drummer did seem to be a little nervous, I thought. But it was a stilted performance with each track carved in into its own specific time slot, whereupon there would be a break and the next pretentiously titled track would be introduced before mumbled vocals and generic downtempo guitar was played. There were some grooves and you could nod along but it’s a push to say it was particularly compelling.

And then, after an anxious wait, Jeff finally took to the stage, alone at first, to play “Two Headed Boy”. The consensus was that this was the best way of doing it; open on a great solo track with Jeff, his guitar and the audience and then introduce the rest of the band in logical album successor and wholly instrumental “The Fool”, and it was a potent combination. I genuinely can’t think of a better way to have opened, and the atmosphere was pretty amazing. I’ve been musing on it and the only other show I’ve seen with that amount of directed love is probably Above & Beyond’s live sets, although it’s a very different crowd. It was immediately commanding and with the exception of a couple of tracks I was pretty rapt through the show from that moment on.

I’m only really familiar with their Aeroplane material, and seemingly so were many other people, the crowd being particularly responsive to explosive “Holland, 1945” and the all important title track “In The Aeroplane Over The Sea”; the excitement to have the opportunity to see NMH live and get to sing along was palpable and I’m not sure how someone couldn’t grin and sing along, it was infectious (even if you, like me, don’t quite know all the lyrics). That’s not to say the material that people didn’t recognise wasn’t good or loved though; my memory is a bit faded and it was kind of an overwhelming experience but “Ferris Wheel On Fire” was fucking incredible, seriously heartwrenching, and something about Julian and his ridiculous hat and energy playing the banjo with a violin bow, spinning out a delicate little riff, just seemed to put the icing on the cake. I hadn’t heard it before but the studio versions don’t really compare at all. Similarly “Oh Comely”, which is perhaps one of the more cumbersome tracks of ITAOTS, was pretty incomparable; the intimacy of the setting and the heaviness of the solo performance was just really fascinating to listen to.

It’s hard to differentiate some of the tracks, especially when I’m unfamiliar with a bunch; the encore was powerful though, with the energised and strongly rhythmic “Ghost” giving people a second wind in its whirlwind instrumentation; I also feel the need to point out that Julian is possibly the greatest player of the musical saw I’ve ever seen and it came out really strongly on this one where it makes a big splash near the end. I kind of thought the set should have ended as it started with Jeff alone as he played out “Two-Headed Boy Pt Two”, which was very affecting, but it came together nicely in closing “Engine” I think.

A lot of words but these things always ultimately end up being splurges as I try to regurgitate absolutely everything I can remember whilst trying to convey the nature of the performance; I knew it was going to be a good show, I’d heard a lot of good things about their live sets and I was looking forward to it, but it’s so hard to describe how visceral and impacting it turned out being. I feel bad for maybe underselling them in the past because the enthusiasm and sheen of the performance was unquestionable; it seriously makes me wonder how far they could have come if they decided to carry on making albums proper. I’m glad I saw them and I urge anyone else with even the slightest inclination to try as well, I’m sort of at a loss for words on this one.