Album Review: Grouper - Shade
And it isn’t until I have sat down with the intent of writing about Shade, the most recent full-length release from Elizabeth Harris’ experimental, genre bending, and long-running project Grouper, that I realize, or at least I come to understand, Harris is making music that you, in a sense, will find yourself in need of.
There are times with her output as Grouper where you might need patience, or it might take a while as you ease your way into the often cavernous, occasionally spectral soundscapes she builds, seemingly effortlessly, through grace and honesty; similarly, the when of when you will find yourself in need might take some time—months or years, really, at least with my own experiences.
Her music will always be there—that’s the thing. And in those moments of need, you will find your way to it.
Not that it is something I am actively seeking to repeat, or am even in a position to repeat if I tried, but I will never have a year as prolific as the first year I began writing pieces for Anhedonic Headphones—2013.
There are myriad reasons why I was able to generate so many pieces—simply having both the time and a lot of enthusiasm certainly played large roles, as did the day job I had in this part of my life. I worked in the office of a small, family-owned publishing company1. It’s easy to reflect on the years I was employed by this company and accurately say that by that point, roughly a year and a half in, I was pretty bored, or at least disinterested in the work I was doing, and viscerally frustrated the people I worked for.
Regardless, it wasn’t a very high stress job, and rarely, if ever, did I feel like I was in over my head or like there was a lot of pressure placed on me.
In August of 2014, I was hired as a news writer for the local paper, and it’s easy to reflect on the years I was employed by the newspaper and accurately say that pretty early on, in a sharp contrast to what I had been doing prior to that, I felt like I was in over my head almost immediately—like, for sure, at least within the first three or four months.
I bring this up because when I worked in the office of the small, family-owned publishing company, I was able to listen to music while I worked—often new music I intended to write something about; the more bored or frustrated I found myself with the work I was doing and the people I worked for, I would find myself discreetly working on portions of, or sometimes entire, album reviews while in my cubicle. I never neglected work that I actually had to do, or needed to do—there were just days where there wasn’t a lot of that, and I was still expected to be at my desk from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.
In a sharp contrast, listening to music—either at a respectable volume from the speakers on your computer, or with headphones (especially with headphones2), was pretty much forbidden2 in the newsroom. The time for listening to new music that I intended to write something about began to dwindle almost immediately after I took the job, as did my enthusiasm for Anhedonic Headphones as a whole; and when I was able to dedicate any of my time to writing, or listening with intention, it became increasingly difficult to do it with any kind of focus or clarity.
I bring this up because, okay, yes, it seems like this is an anecdote that is going nowhere, or at least nowhere relevant, but I bring this up because on Halloween of 2014, Harris released her 10th album as Grouper, Ruins.
Pulled together from sessions recorded in Portugal in 2011, I have this very vague memory, and perhaps it’s one I have fabricated, but I have this memory of gazing at the album’s stark cover in my iTunes library, and listening with the intention of writing something about it—but that something never materialized.
And obviously this is still the case with the kind of music writing I do now—for every album I am able to put something together about, there are countless others I’d love to articulate my thoughts about, but often do not make the time, or have the time; or in many cases, I don’t often have the enthusiasm and discipline that is needed to keep up the kind of “content generation” style of writing, as opposed to the rather than writing long and (hopefully) thoughtful observations and reflections.
Ruins is among the albums released that autumn I had wanted to make time for, and really listen to, but was just not able to. And I wonder if it was not only because I was finding it difficult to balance the stress and deadlines of writing for a newspaper, but if it was because, perhaps, in 2014, I wasn’t in need of the record yet.
It was something I would, eventually, find my way to around four years later.
There are so many things I find fascinating about Elizabeth Harris’ work as Grouper. Of course, the kind of music she makes is one of them, but there are times, especially lately, as I sit with and listen through Shade, when I am more interested in the way she works, and what I understand as the patience she has with herself.
Seemingly forgoing the very typical methods of making an album—writing songs, heading into a studio to record them, releasing those songs as an album shortly thereafter, et. al—Harris lets her recordings gestate for years. Ruins was recorded in 2011 but released three years later; its follow up, Grid of Points, released in 2018, was recorded during her time in Wyoming in 2014. Shade, apparently, is a collection of material that was recorded over the last 15 years, committed to tape in places like Portland (where she resides), Astoria, and at a residency in Mount Tamalpais.
One may think that an album of this nature might arrive sounding like an “odds and ends” collection, or have little, if any, cohesive nature. That is, however, not the case, and the through line that connects the nine pieces on Shade is the acoustic guitar.
Ruins and Grid of Points were what you could easily refer to as Harris’ “piano albums,” but the guitar—often drenched in dizzying, seemingly unending reverb, is maybe not her “first” instrument, but the one she is perhaps better known for in her output under the Grouper moniker. Here, on Shade, all of that spiraling and echoing is mostly gone, and what Harris has collected is a set of songs that can be unprecedented in both their intimacy as well as their very fragile, very human qualities.
Enough time has elapsed now, and I am uncertain how I was even able to maintain focus during the span of early April until late May of 2018, but I managed to sit with (perhaps not intently or as focused as I insist on being now) Harris’ eleventh album as Grouper, Grid of Points, and write a piece that ran on the day it was released.
A lesson in brevity, Grid of Points is barely over 20 minutes in length, and consists of short, haunted piano and vocal based compositions. A sonically kindred spirit to Ruins, recorded in a somewhat similar fashion, my time with Grid of Points sent me back four years to revisit its predecessor.
I had found my way back to the album because it was then that I needed it.
As May came to an end, following a long, difficult decline with little if any signs of hope, there was a death in the family. The seemingly infinite anxious, uneasy days and sleepless nights came to a stop suddenly, and in the silence of that summer, and in the anger and irritability I was uncertain how to manage, and in the grief and sadness that more than threatened to overtake me completely, I tried desperately to claw at any kind of comfort and solace I could find—and I found that in both Grid of Points and Ruins.
There are so many things I find fascinating about Elizabeth Harris’ work as Grouper. Of course the kind of music she makes is one of them, and as I have been preparing to write this, and have been listening so closely and intently to Shade, in reading about her previous albums, I have found the way she speaks about her music, and her process, to be incredibly thoughtful and compelling.
In 2014 while living in Wyoming, she began crafting the pieces for Grid of Points when cold weather kept her indoors—suddenly falling ill, Harris took that as a sign the writing and recording was done. "Though brief, it is complete,” she’s quoted as saying about the album. “The intimacy and abbreviation of this music allude to an essence that the songs lyrics speak more directly of. The space left after matter has departed, a stage after the characters have gone, the hollow of some central column, missing."
Her description for the process behind Ruins is even more evocative.
“It was the first time Iʼd sat still for a few years,” Harris reflected. “Processed a lot of political anger and emotional garbage...When I wasnʼt recording songs I was hiking several miles to the beach. The path wound through the ruins of several old estates and a small village. The album is a document. A nod to that daily walk. Failed structures. Living in the remains of love...I hope that the album bears some resemblance to the place that I was in.”
Of the nine pieces that have been collected for Shade, there are a handful that do not reside in the quiet, acoustic intimacy that the rest of the record has. Instead, they live in a place that is both claustrophobic and heavy, while being expansive and cavernous.
After a very brief delay, Shade opens with what sounds like the warble of an audio cassette.
And after sitting with Shade, the easiest way to describe, or at least the description that makes the most sense, for tracks like “Followed The Ocean,” “Disordered Minds,” and the aptly titled “Basement Mix,” is that it sounds like they are being broadcast from another world—and if not another world, the muffed, disorienting cacophony sounds like it’s coming from another room in the house, and you are desperately trying to get a clearer listen, pressing your ear to the floor, or to the wall, attempting to make sense of what you are hearing.
There is an undercurrent of tape hiss that floats alongside “Followed The Ocean,” and the warbling sound from its opening moment gives the impression the song itself, even as it continues along, is struggling to find the right speed that it is supposed to be played at. There is a hint of melody, or a structure, however faint it might be, and presumably Harris is singing and strumming the guitar, though that is, of course, an attempt at trying to take a piece like this and easily explain it, or make sense of it, and there are times with Harris’ work as Grouper where it’s best to maintain a willing suspension of disbelief and allow the music to live within its own world. “Followed The Ocean” is a startling and disorienting way to open up this collection—haunting and mysterious, yes, and she, right out of the gate, walks the fine line between dissonance and beauty.
Harris returns to this type of soundscape midway through Shade, with “Disordered Minds,” another aptly titled piece, because through the seemingly endless and muffled reverb and echo, it’s extraordinarily difficult to understand what the fuck is even going on. Over what could, probably, be guitar strums, there is another sound that could be a voice, or it could not be—again, in the density of the way the piece is recorded and more or less unmixed, it’s tough to really know, but this other sound, the one that could be Harris’ voice, continues to float and bend itself while the torrent of noise below it is unrelenting, with the entire thing building to a chaotic finish as pummeling sound pushes its way into the layers, bringing it to a cacophony within the last 90 seconds.
As you might anticipate from something called “Basement Mix,” the eighth piece on the collection, it’s recorded to sound like it is, in fact, coming from the basement of an old, possibly haunted house, and you are on another level within the structure, listening and trying to make out what you can. Of all the songs that are the most drenched in reverb and recorded in an intentionally lo-fi and unpolished fashion, “Basement Mix” is the piece that is the least difficult and disorienting to sit with, but that doesn’t mean it’s an easy listen. Though, as you might have guessed at this point nothing from Harris ever really is—I mean, there can be a somewhat soothing albeit melancholic nature to a lot of her music, but “Basement Mix” is not one of those pieces. There is a weight to it that is difficult to explain, a very palpable sadness that rings out in the way her fingers caress the higher strings on the guitar and the scraping dissonance created as she very intentionally places her hand down on the neck of the instrument.
Sometimes I wish that none of this had happened…
I started walking to and from work near the end of 2018. The walking back home, at the end of the day, I could, for myriad reasons, truthfully do without most of the time. But the walk to work in the morning—shortly after six, just as the sun is beginning to really rise, when the world is predominantly still—I have come to appreciate these 15 or 20 minutes as a time of silent reflection and needed preparation for whatever the day is going to present to me when I arrive at work.
It would have been a year into these walks that I began listening to sad, or more melancholic music on my headphones—admittedly this is not a wise choice as I stare down an eight or nine hour work day, but I found the somber tone of certain songs provided the best soundtrack for these moments.
There was a point before the beginning of 2020 when I included the song “Clearing,” taken from Harris’ 2014 album Ruins in the list of songs to possibly cycle through on these walks. It’s a quiet song, with her voice almost never rising above what would be described as a mumble or a whisper, with her hands delicately playing the keys of an old, upright piano. And there are a lot of times with Harris when struggling to make out the lyrics is part of the mystery with Grouper that you want to unravel though may never solve—her words aren’t secondary to the music or arranging, but they are cloaked enough that each time you listen to a song, you may be able to pick out one or two more, or hear a line differently.
There is one line in “Clearing” though, that after enough close listens on those walks to work, that I understood, and it began to resonate more the further along into 2020 I got—”Sometimes I wish that none of this had happened…”
It is fitting, I guess, that the first “single” released off of Shade is one of the album’s most focused and accessible sounding—arriving after the sheer dissonance of “Followed The Ocean,” is the plaintive, folk-leaning “Unclean Mind.”
I hesitate to describe anything by Grouper as being “infectious,” or “catchy,” but even with her penchant for experimentation, Harris is very capable of writing a song that seemingly follows a rough, pop song kind of organization in terms of verses, a chorus, and patterns of chords. If it isn’t “infectious” or “catchy,” Harris has created a melody that is ultimately memorable on “Unclean Mind.” Cleanly strummed acoustic guitar and her low, somewhat mumbled or hushed vocal delivery (you can still kind of make out a few words here and there if you really listen) make it both haunting and beautiful, striking a juxtaposition between spectral or icy from the way she lets her voice rise and fall, at times sounding whispery and thin, and the lush warmth of the big, confident strums of her guitar.
When I was listening to Shade with the intention of taking notes on each track, the word “somber” appears a number of times, which is unsurprising, but it appears within what I wrote down for both “Ode to The Blue” and “Pale Interior.”
Slow and hypnotic, with just a little bit of hesitation that she seems to be able to overcome in the way she plucks the strings of the guitar—each string pluck with noticeably different intention—”Ode to The Blue” is gentle, and fragile, like a lullaby, as Harris pushes her voice into a whispered, delicate range. The fascinating part, though, is this fragile range causes her voice to break, and crack, slightly, and it creates a difficult to explain harshness, or dissonance, serving in contrast to the slow, continual tumbling beauty of her guitar playing.
“Pale Interior” is similar—there is a quiet, yet very palpable sadness to it, as the acoustic guitar strings are gently plucked, though here, there is less of a deliberate nature to the way Harris is hitting the strings; instead, there’s shadow cast over them. It’s not ominous, per se, but there is a darkness—the kind you know you shouldn’t reach out to grasp, but cannot help yourself from doing it regardless. The vocals, seemingly multi-tracked, give the track a slightly unsettling, ethereal feeling—it isn’t dizzying, but there is a swooning, gauzy nature to it all that, along with the tension Harris creates with just a little bit of hesitation and control of the speed in rhythm she is crafting through the guitar strings, conjures a feeling that is entirely too easy to be swept up in.
There is an intimacy that exists throughout a bulk of Shade—specifically in the pieces that are less dissonant or chaotic in sound; that is due, in part, to the very nature of the skeletal presentation—Harris’ voice and an acoustic guitar. But in listening closely through a set of headphones, there are moments where things are produced in such a way that it feels like you are in the room with her. “The Way Her Hair Falls” is one of those moments.
The song that feels the most like a sketch, or, albeit an intentional one, a fragment, “The Way Her Hair Falls” finds Harris working through the repetition of a specific musical idea, or phrase, starting and stopping when something doesn’t land quite right, creating these very short, concentrated bursts of guitar string plucking, quietly mumbled singing, with enormous pauses in between. Whether it’s intentional or not, or just part of the process, there’s a real tension, or at least a frustration, that resonates as she tries to find just the right note, or bring her fingers down on the right chord.
Even if it is simply a sketch, or with the repetition of just a few lyrics that seem like a poem more than anything else, Harris has created an honest and vulnerable moment in time.
As Shade concludes, the slow and gentle “Promise” creates a contrast between the warmth and closeness of the acoustic guitar, with the chilly melancholy of Harris’ vocals—it isn’t “dreamy,” but there is a hazy, dream-like quality to it, and truthfully, to a lot of this album as well. There is the space that occurs between waking life and dreams—sometimes it is difficult to tell which is which, and Shade, as a whole, has that kind of a feeling. A woozy disorientation that is both as gorgeous as it is unnerving.
The collection ends with “Kelso (Blue Sky),” which, similarly to “Unclean Mind,” is among the most focused or “traditionally” structured tracks found on Shade. Over the top of Harris’ confident guitar string plucking, her voice floats—stronger, or at least more robust in her delivery than almost anywhere else on the album, it isn’t as weighed down by reverb of her penchant for a quiet, difficult to surmise delivery of her lyrics. There is a spectral, almost mystic, very folk-oriented tinge to the progression on the guitar, and there is an atmospheric element in both the wordless singing she punctuates parts of the song with, and especially in the way she intentionally plays with the usage of long instrumental breaks between lines.
Like the two Grouper records that came before Shade—Ruins more or less concluding3 with the sound of a thunderstorm, and Grid of Points ending with the sound of a train rushing by for a majority of “Breathing,” Harris ends Shade by taking the listener outside once again—this time with the sound of an evening breeze, and owls faintly in the distance.
It is, perhaps, impossible to know when you will need a certain artist, or album, in your life.
Seven years ago, gazing at a thumbnail version to the cover art for Ruins in my iTunes library, at the time, it was impossible for me to know it was an album I would eventually find my way to under the circumstances I did, and that it is an album I would still be returning to in moments when I am seeking some kind of comfort or silence when things are otherwise chaotic.
Less overtly melancholic in the way it blurs the lines between the eerie and the beautiful in comparison to Ruins or Grid of Points, Shade, even when it is a challenging listen, is a thoughtful collection of songs that provide small insights into Elizabeth Harris’ creative process. There are melodies that might echo in our heads, but it is Harris’ ability to conjure an atmosphere (in this case, mostly by using her voice and an acoustic guitar) and place us deep within it that will linger, and in some instances, even haunt us long after the album’s come to an end.
1- Just a quick aside here to explain this a little—I worked for this family from the autumn of 2011 until the spring of 2014, when it was determined that the company was in dire financial straits and they could no longer afford to pay me. I could, in truth, probably write something about my time working for these people and this company, because certainly there were enough weird elements to it, or things that occurred that others might find interesting. Even after seven years, I am still a little resentful of the fact that I was laid off rather unceremoniously and that the married couple who owned the company still continued to run it for a number of years after that (and presumably somehow paid themselves?) but they had also bought a second home, or a “vacation home,” or whatever, in upstate New York. The woman who was my “boss,” more or less, also had told me, upon my exiting, that she was going to get right to work writing me a recommendation letter to use when I applied for other jobs. Maybe about a month or so after I was let go, I ran into her somewhere and she told me she was “still working on that letter” for me. It might surprise to hear that letter of recommendation never came.
2- There was a lot of what I affectionately called “ambulance chasing” done at the newspaper—there was a police scanner set up at somebody’s desk, and whenever there was a lot of chatter on it, everybody in the newsroom was supposed to pay attention. Listening to music with headphones would have prevented me from hearing about a “personal injury accident” or something else that I deemed exploitive and not newsworthy.
3- Clarifying point—Ruins technically ends with a lengthy, noisy piece that Harris had actually recorded about a decade before the album’s release; the last proper song, though, is the first track on the album’s second side, “Holding”—the song that ends with the interpolation of a rain storm.
Shade arrives on October 22nd, and will be available on vinyl, CD, and as a digital download, via Kranky.