[25 November 2008]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
Of all the bands that have found themselves championed by that mercurial power that is the Internet over the past couple years, High Places seem the least likely to fit into that strange land of hype. Their music tends to keep to itself. It doesn’t reach out so much as draw you in. And it lacks any quick and fleeting way to grab a listener, no wink-and-nod gimmicks to hook us. In fact, High Places seem content not to be included in much of anything. So much so that, in comparison to the noise surrounding their seven inches and demos, the release of their first proper full-length on Thrill Jockey came pretty much under the radar.
But High Places, their new record, is the kind of confident and thoughtful creation that needs to no hype, no immediate hook to be appreciated. Long after the web hype around the band dies down—and it will when the next quirky darling comes along—this record will still be a gem. It’s got a lasting subtlety, one that is difficult to earn. By establishing a sound that made up of so many fragile elements—Mary Pearson’s vocals in particular, and the myriad bits and pieces that make up Rob Barber’s tunes—they risk a sameness that runs over the album.
Luckily, the album has enough hidden surprises and deeply buried melodies to keep that from happening. “The Storm” starts things off with a shuffling beat populated with pings and blips that are rounded down around the edges, sounding more organic than electronic. The sound fits well in a song where Pearson reminisces about moments like “I went to climb the tree, now my clothes are stained with pitch, it was worth it.” The song marks the start to an album that is always deep in memory, wistful even when its speaking of the present, like walking through a forest in “The Tree with the Lights In It”.
Trees are prevalent in High Places, and in other spots Pearson sings of escaping to higher land above rising water. After a while the band’s name, and the name of the album, become more than a title and part of the album’s thematic arc. That the set of themes never becomes clear, never closes itself off, is not a misstep by the band. Because getting to the high places, the mountains and the trees, is not as important as knowing you’re there.
It’s also not as important as feeling like you’re rising above things to higher places. And that is the feeling this music gives you. The wooden clinks and looped vocals of the stuttering “Gold Coin”. The cold, water-dripping plunks of “Namer”. The start and stop shudder of the brilliant closer “From Stardust to Sentience”. They all sound simultaneously intimate and all-encompassing. In the same way the vocals and the kitchen-sink instruments and the beats come together on High Places, so too do the band and the song, the song and the album, the album and the listener. Most impressive, perhaps, is how little High Places rely on heavy bass to drive these songs. They are pushed by rhythm, and have a knack for it, but they never turn up the bass drum to upset these pristinely crafted songs.
This album is a creation full of pieces that could not be as successful if left on their own. Pearson’s fey vocals have personality, but without Barber’s junk drawer landscapes they lose some power. And vice versa. The addition of Pearson’s voice takes Barber’s unassuming tunes and sends them soaring. In that way, High Places doesn’t sound like a duo at all. It sounds like one entity making one sound. And it is a beautiful sound, whether its coming from a place up high, or aiming for one.