Liz Harris’ introspective album embraces stray sounds
by Mason Pitzel
Editor’s note: Prairie Dog left a lot of excellent records un-reviewed this year. It’s ruining our sleep, our posture, our friendships and more, so we couldn’t let 2014 pass without finally paying these releases the attention they deserve. /Chris Kirkland
Ruins, which was released in October, isn’t a total shift away from Grouper’s (a.k.a. Liz Harris) previous work, but it’s different enough. Harris made the album during an artist’s residency in Portugal where, with a surplus of alone-time, she worked through some personal struggles and documented the exploration with voice and piano. The results are pensive –– again, not unlike her other Grouper records. But this record differs in its skeletal structure.
There’s little electronic treatment here; the ambiance is natural. The tail of each note is stretched as far as possible, but only by the piano’s pedal. The realism is heightened by incidental noises –– especially the errant (and now semi-famous) microwave beep that interrupts “Labyrinth”. The moment is antithetical to the carefully crafted sounds Grouper is known for, but it’s a great indicator of Harris’ ability to create music that’s intimate, but not quite personal.
Ruins offers an emotional outlet for Harris, and a space for listeners to project their own emotions (though the track “Made of Air”, a decade-old experiment that could have been lifted from 2008’s Dragging a Dead Deer Up a Hill, is an outlier). Tracks share the fragile acoustics of that house in Portugal, and sound somewhere between inviting and merely empty. The tension is best felt on the stunning “Holding”, where Harris’ triple-tracked vocals alternately comfort and dissuade, until the performance is consumed by a literal thunderstorm.
It’s hard to imagine Harris’ Grouper albums will stay this plain or direct, but this digression is appreciated.
Broke with Expensive Taste
Three years ago, Azealia Banks blew the doors off hip-hop with “212”, a foul-mouthed announcement of purpose and insane talent. Now, after a series of small releases, Twitter fights with other musicians and a season in hell with Interscope Records, Banks has finally come out with her first full-length record. Broke with Expensive Taste (released in November) is a messy, genre-defying tour de force, going from the confrontational blast “Yung Rapunxel” to the über-stylish pop of “Chasing Time”. The inclusion of older material makes some of the album feel a bit dated, but the sheer weirdness of “Nude Beach A Go-Go” (a collaboration with Ariel Pink) and the effortless Spanish rap of “Gimme a Chance” show just how much Banks has grown since the filthy flow of “212”. /Aidan Morgan
There’s none of the Velvets-influenced guitar solos that defined Galaxie 500 and Luna on Dean Wareham’s self-titled solo debut (released way back in March), and none of the Lee Hazlewood/Nancy Sinatra-inspired dynamic male/female pop vocals from the Dean and Britta years. The focus instead is on Wareham the songwriter — a role he’s always been good at, but which was overshadowed by his excellent work as a stylist. Wareham’s understated, world-weary pop recalls Nick Lowe’s magnificent 2001 album The Convincer. “Beat the Devil”, “Love Is Not a Roof Against the Rain” and “Heartless People” are all superb down-tempo bummer pop, marked by Wareham’s nearly deadpan delivery. Which only makes “Holding Pattern” all the more enjoyable as it (ironically) breaks from the pattern, lets Wareham bust out the falsetto, and offers up a glorious guitar solo. /Emmet Matheson
For a few weeks, 2014 really insisted that I sit down and listen to “Coffee” by North Carolina duo Sylvan Esso. Tons of podcasts I listened to, reviews I read and more all gushed with praise — and, as I finally discovered, rightfully so. The song, and the record (which was released in May) find greatness in the balance between singer Amelia Meath and producer Nick Sanborn. At first, Meath’s excellent voice feels like it would be well-suited to warm folk music, but here she’s matched with twiddly electronics and blunt-force synths, and it works. The effect feels as light as your favourite pop record, but the songs still have power and substance. /James Brotheridge