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High Places

Can’t Feel Born

(Thrill Jockey; US: 4 May 2010; UK: Import)

When High Places unleashed High Places vs. Mankind earlier this year, the band emanated a turbulence that seemed a bit like trouble in utopia.  The band’s previous self-titled long player was like a jungle gym in an enchanted forest, a euphoric chorus of discarded scrap sounds that were pieced together and assembled in tender harmony by main musician Rob Barber. Lead singer Mary Pearson’s gentle maternal cooing offered womb-like comfort and projected earth mother omnipotence. On High Places vs. Mankind though, Pearson seemed more distraught and human at points, tearing the band’s animistic primitiveness from the teat of psychedelic bliss and hurling it into the (un)real world of base anxieties and tree-climbing blisters. 

Many of their periodic elements were still in place, but there were also prominent guitars and more easily discernible lyrics, suggesting, at the very least, a waking relation to the present musical and cultural landscape and distancing themselves from their juvenile idyll. One of the things that originally set High Places apart from their Brooklyn brethren was that they sounded like they came from nowhere near the aforementioned New York island. Instead, they sounded like they were from somewhere deep in the woods, a place where no cars go and where the wild things, in all likeliness, are. Oddly enough for all their pastoralism, the band transferred from New York to the no-less-rural Los Angeles. With High Places vs. Mankind, the urban jostle seems to have crept into their sound, if not their lyrics.

The Can’t Feel Born EP is a halfway stop between the two albums. It retains much of the solemnity of newer High Places while combining their patented playful, phased-to-all-hell instrumentation with more acoustic sounds. The disc consists of two tracks (“Can’t Feel Nothing” and “I Was Born”, hence the EP title), and two remixes of those same tracks done by High Places themselves. As these are brand new pieces, it’s difficult to discern why exactly the “remixes” are not the originals and vice versa, apart from a more pronounced disco rhythm on the remixes, but nevertheless the companion pieces compliment each other. 

Of the two reworkings, the “I Was Born” remix resembles the original more. It’s a bit spacier, though. Success in a High Places song often consists of whether a song employs copious amounts of reverb or even more copious amounts of reverb. The “I Was Born” remix goes for the latter, replacing what sounds like an electric viola solo in the original with a few bars of woozy guitars before allowing itself to let loose in the second half of the track.

The “Can’t Feel Nothing” remix ups the tempo a bit, sliding into a more club-friendly BPM that proposes a potential new direction that may mirror Caribou and Four Tet’s recent diaspora into the strobe light. The tribal percussion here, advanced by a throbbing 4/4 beat, and the echoing hollers of one-off lyrical phonemes are less ossified artifacts of preserved woodland preciousness than familiar dance culture tropes that have been present from Underworld to Altered Natives. Yet, as is the case with the rest of their music, they have a way of making these tropes sound weird and exciting. One hopes that there is more High Places remix work in the near future.

The originals of these two tracks are bizarre little pop conjectures, succinct and multi-tiered. They defy traditional structure by changing course midway through and refusing choruses. High Places always wonderfully resist the temptation to carelessly dissolve their granola tendencies into a multiculturalist world music jamboree. By sufficiently de-ethnicizing their music and removing any elements of cultural tourism, they turn their imaginary landscapes into a third place, less a Pandora than a degenerated Hudson River School vista with scrap metal sculptures, adobe slats for the kids, and synths twisted into exotic bird shapes integrated into the landscape (though the cover of Can’t Feel Born leaves the landscape intact). They’ve been known to accumulate samples from strange indoor fixtures like mixing bowls and crumpled pieces of paper and there’s no reason to think that isn’t still the case on this EP. In doing so though, they externalize the domestic, exporting goods back into nature, while retaining the unnaturalness of their syntheses. The result is a music that sounds like no other, an aural panorama that evokes nature without submitting to it.

“Can’t Feel Nothing” starts out with a simple tremolo before Pearson’s patented lulling voice and Barber’s thudding tom drum enter.Pearson reads off her simple verse with the composure of Taoist mantra, though here words are far from reassuring and even a tad claustrophobic. “I would suggest you hide/ If there were somewhere to go”, she states, pointing out later that the person with whom she is speaking will likely wind up ambushing his or her own constructed shelter anyway. The double negative of the title remains unresolved in the lines “You’ll be beating like the rain beats on the ground/Kicked until you can’t feel nothing”. It’s unclear whether the subject of the narrative wants to feel nothing or whether that will be the end result of the bruises in any battle that is vs. Mankind.

“I Was Born” is perhaps even better and even sadder. Lachrymose trumpets open the piece and the extreme panning sensation that is a High Places record commences with the drop of the vocal-drum duet. In this tune, Pearson uses the title as the ultimate deterministic law, setting forth an existence in which she is, as Sartre would say, condemned to be free. “I love your selflessness, but baby I was born” she sings. “The doctor had some things to say the day I was born/ I tried to listen but my head was screaming ‘I was born’”, she claims, noting the pain of just existing in the world. In joining, battling, or just acknowledging mankind, High Places have made it much more difficult for themselves. They’ve left the sandbox utopia and are headed into an earth ravaged by environmental catastrophe and mired in spiritual crisis. Luckily, the group’s discography thus far has proved that they are to the challenge and I for one can’t wait to hear the next step in the transformation.


Timothy Gabriele is a writer who studied English and Film at the University of Massachussetts at Amherst. He currently lives in the New Haven, CT region with his family. His column, The Difference Engine, appears regularly at PopMatters. He can be found twittering @Wildcorrective and blogging at 555 Enterprises.

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