Grouper - The Man Who Died in His Boat

by Daryl Worthington Rating:9 Release Date:2013-02-04

Frank Zappa's assertion that 'writing about music is like dancing to architecture' never rings more true than when trying to describe music released on the Kranky label. All of the acts on the label, from Windy and Carl to Steve Hauschildt, Deerhunter to Stars of the Lid, have something in common which is hard to put into words. Despite having a musically diverse roster, there is an implacable warmth to all the records they have released. Grouper is a relatively new addition to the label (their relationship beginning last year with a series of reissues) but her music seems to fit so seamlessly into Kranky's catalogue, it feels she should always have been there. It also means it is very difficult to explain why exactly her music is so wonderfully engaging.

The Man Who Died in His Boat is Grouper's (aka Liz Harris) seventh album, although the tracks themselves come from the same sessions as 2008's critically acclaimed Dragging a Dead Deer Up a Hill. However, this is far from just being an add-on or cheap cash in of that albums success. There are superficial similarities in the texture and arrangements to that album, and it has more in common with Dragging a Dead Deer … than it does with her two most recent albums, Dream Loss and Alien Observer, but the songs themselves have an identity all their own which remove them from easy comparison with the rest of her work. An example is the album's closer, 'Living Room', which is built on a relatively clean acoustic guitar and Harris' voice. Lines such as, "It's getting harder and harder to fake/ acting like everything is in its place" have a rawness and clarity which reflect the bare arrangement and close the album with a sense of intimacy rarely found in her work.

The album's title refers to a story from Harris' childhood concerning the mysterious arrival of an unmanned boat washed up on Agate Beach. Although this is far from a concept album, the story itself frames the songs in a distinct context which further distinguishes it from her other work. The tracks 'STS' and 'Differences (Voices)' are both built on guitar playing that sounds like Harris softly beating the strings rather than plucking or strumming them. The effect is to create a sound like waves gently rolling on the hull of a boat. Both tracks feature Harris' voice, drenched in reverb and deep in the mix, the effect being a kind of haunting, foggy sense of detachment and isolation.

Many of the hallmarks of Grouper's music are present. Songs are largely built on simple, repetitive acoustic guitar progressions, with 'Towers' and the album's title track being the obvious examples. Swans' Michael Gira has toured with Grouper several times and this leads to an interesting point of comparison. Harris' use of repetition and minimal arrangements is in some ways similar to Gira's. Obviously the outcomes are vastly different - Grouper doesn't use these techniques as blistering form of confrontation. Rather, the repeating guitars are used as a vehicle to carry along more subtle changes. The hypnotic effect achieved by her use of repetition is a blissful disorientation, rather than an angry one.

A feature of Grouper live shows which is perhaps not always reflected so clearly in her recorded albums is the layering of her voice through delay and reverb. The Man Who Died… captures this much more effectively. 'Being Her Shadow' is built on mournful electric guitar arpeggios. Through the blurry, murky layers her voice begins to float in, providing a beautiful contrast to the stark desolation of the guitar playing. Similarly, on 'Vital', the vocals build up to an almost choral effect, (A choir recorded through static and tape hiss of course), providing a moment of eerie beauty and highlighting the slow shifts in the tone of the album.

The song is at its most effective when placed in contrast to the more sombre parts of the album and, equally, the darker parts of the album need the release of these subtle moments of light and optimism. Often, Harris' lyrics become obscured by being buried so low in the mix. However, the meaning and tone intended is always abundantly clear from track to track, and in some cases is actually transmitted more clearly due to their obscuration.

Grouper's music is not one of grandiose crescendos and short attention-span-appeasing, sudden jumps between ideas. It is fundamentally a form of pop or folk music, in that is routed in lyrics, melody and, in an abstract form, 'hooks'. However, its execution is more akin to a Satie composition, music designed to be slowly digested and enjoyed for the subtle details and beautiful textures that seep from it.

One could criticise The Man Who Died in His Boat for not being a massive departure from her other work, but this is missing the fundamental point. Her ability as a songwriter means the album covers new ground lyrically, and musically it delves further into the minute fragments and details which have defined her work. Rather than jumping from one genre to the other, this album continues Grouper's method of exploring further the world of warm tape hiss she has created.

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