Grouper – Shade

Tracing lines of loss, the flaws of being human, and aspects of love, solitude, and isolation, Shade is the twelfth full-length record from Grouper, a continuation of ambient reflection and introspection. The songs of Pacific Northwest artist Liz Harris absorb their surroundings, including the deep mists of the Bay Area, which echo on through the use of wet reverb and the slight decay which eats away at the tone like a heart slowly shattering; a slight erosion takes place, in the heart and in the music, a dampening caused by incessant rainfall.

Shade is a collection of songs which span roughly fifteen years. Harris calls it ‘an album about respite, and the coast, poetically and literally… how we frame ourselves in a landscape, how in turn it frames ourselves; memories and experiences carried forward mapping our connection to place.’ Sections of Shade were recorded on California’s Mount Tamalpais, during a residency many years ago. Other songs were recorded in Portland and stretch back even further, while the rest of the music was recorded more recently in Astoria. Cohesive and thoughtful, the music has a strong spine, even while appearing tonally fragile.

Subject to maritime storms, rolling banks of fog, and the unpredictability of its running rivers, which can either sail along or surge with a sudden, unstoppable force, Grouper’s music nevertheless offers a placid and forever-calm space. Opening song ‘Followed The Ocean’ has that classic Grouper sound – hazy harmonies hovering in the murk, her voice floating, apparition-like, somewhere nearby and yet lost in the distance, achingly close to home but remaining forever cut off from someone; lost to the waters, even though the shoreline is in sight. The slower pace allows for a more thoughtful sound, as if she’s processing things along with the listeners, working things out with the help of the music.

Other songs feature a clearer sound, as the guitar provides the rhythm, the accompaniment, and a slower, more reclined tempo. The finger-plucked melody of ‘Ode to the Blue’ offers more of a delicate and comforting sound, as if the instrument understands. And it does. The guitar offers solace and protects its companion after experiencing a life-altering loss. Even the vocals seem tired, diminished to humming a frail melody and ending in a sigh. Eventually, it finds rest.

As always, the music is exceptionally beautiful. The murky, sunken tones only add to the depth of the music and the atmosphere is composed and relaxed at all times. Maybe it’s the location; it definitely has an effect on the music, the natural environment adding so much more to the music than a pedal chain or the use of new equipment. ‘The Way Her Hair Falls’ is a mesmerising song, with a gentleness that only Grouper can usher out, while ‘Kelso (Blue Sky)’ is a beautiful and bittersweet ending that begins optimistically and ends in heartbreak.

Harris has produced another stellar record with this release. Shade is out on Kranky on October 22.

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