Review: Grouper - "Dragging a Dead Deer Up a Hill (reissue)" and "The Man Who Died in His Boat"

Occasionally, you find a record, or an artist, that you have to be in the right “mood” to listen to. To say that Grouper is one of those artists is an understatement.

Grouper is a one-woman project conceived by Liz Harris. She started releasing music as Grouper in 2005, and her critically acclaimed third album, Dragging a Dead Deer Up a Hill has been out of print since shortly after its 2008 release on the Type Records label.  That problem has been remedied by the folks at the Chicago-based Kranky—who have kindly reissued the aforementioned DDD, as well as a companion album of material recorded around the same time, but was not released until now, The Man Who Died in His Boat.

If you were going to try to apply genre names to Harris’ music, I’d say it walks some kind of blurry line between shoegaze and folk music. Her primary instrument is the acoustic guitar, and that’s about all there is to it, save for some various atmospheric sounds and tape loop noises. But all of that, along with her very low, and mumbly voice, have been reverbed into oblivion. Listening to Grouper sounds like you are listening to a record in an echo chamber—the sound just continues to build layer upon layer.

I say that Grouper is music you must listen to in the right “mood” because this isn’t the kind of record you want to put on at your desk when you are at work, or when you are driving around town doing errands, or when you are, you know, looking to have a good time. Harris’ music is not dark per se, but it’s very haunting. It’s also very slow. What I mean by that is that time actually seems to pass very slowly when you are listening to Grouper. Whether or not that’s a bad thing, I am not sure yet.

DDD begins with a noise collage intro which segues every so nicely into one of the most accessible tracks, “Heavy Water/I’d Rather Be Sleeping.” It’s actually a somewhat catchy song, with a clear verse/chorus/verse structure. But it’s just drowning in reverb, which is what makes it somewhat inaccessible, but it’s also what makes it, as well as the rest of this record, unique.

When Harris isn’t mumbling, her voice is actually really really gorgeous—and it shows midway through the album on “Fishing Bird,” as well as in the latter half of the album on “A Cover Over.” But the beauty is also balanced out with some dissonance to make sure that it is not a totally enjoyable listening experience.

Another interesting thing to point out about DDD, as well as its companion record, is that they are both, for the most part, sequenced seamlessly. When I mean by that is that songs never really stop—they just kind of collide into the next one, with trace elements of the first song lingering for a moment in the next. The record closes down with two very atmospheric, almost-instrumental tracks, leading into the lullaby-esq “We’ve All Time to Sleep”—a song that includes no dissonance, and finishes the album off quite beautifully.

Dragging a Dead Deer Up a Hill has been hailed as a “career defining” album for Liz Harris. Since this record’s release in 2008, her recent output has seen her lingering into even more experimental and harder to access territory. The companion album to DDD, The Man Who Died in His Boat, is a slightly more “song” oriented release. Meaning that there are obligatory sound collages, but on the pieces that aren’t, you can see a more defined structure—specifically in the album’s first “single,” as it were, “Vital.”

This is what Harris herself had to say about this collection of songs, as well as where the title comes from: “When I was a teenager the wreckage of a sailboat washed up on the shore of Agate Beach. The remains of the vessel weren't removed for several days. I walked down with my father to peer inside the boat cabin. Maps, coffee cups and clothing were strewn around inside. I remember looking only briefly, wilted by the feeling that I was violating some remnant of this man's presence by witnessing the evidence of its failure. Later I read a story about him in the paper. It was impossible to know what had happened. The boat had never crashed or capsized. He had simply slipped off somehow, and the boat, like a riderless horse, eventually came back home.”

Similarly with DDD, The Man Who Died is a very haunted and solemn affair. You can hear that very clearly in the less-reverby songs like “Towers,” or “Cover The Long Way.” In the more-reverby songs, such as the title track, the almost indecipherable closing track “STS,” or “Being Her Shadow,” there’s some kind of desperate feeling to them—still haunted, however. Like a ghost trapped within these recordings is begging to make contact with somebody.

Nobody is really making music quite like Liz Harris. There are other female artists doing similar acoustic/ambient things, but these two records are very original. There are some artists that make music that is readily accessible to the ears of everybody. Grouper is not that kind of artist. These records aren’t even readily available to the most refined of musical palates. Grouper transports you to some kind of alternate world, and you need to be prepared for what you are getting yourself into.