On their third album, Rob Barber and Mary Pearson, who make up High Places, want to be more adult. Though the band has explored darker themes, the standout sounds on the previous two albums (2008’s self-titled offering and last year’s more interesting Vs. Mankind) occur in the childlike range made so popular by Animal Collective. But with Original Colors, the duo have stripped down the instrumentation to a dubby focus on percussion and bass and have discovered a sultrier side to Pearson’s vocals. On the opening, “Year Off”, Pearson moves back and forth between dead pan spoken word and an indie impression of an electro diva over a stuttering bassline and industrial percussion. With the next track, “The Pull”, she tops her smoky delivery in a reticent echo of “The Girl from Ipanema” over ethereal keys and shuffling drums. This newfound maturity compliments the more basic sound, reducing songs to their essential qualities.
High Places have always had a pop sensibility in their melodies that verged on the saccharine, so Pearson’s innocent delivery often got gummed up in twee. The songs devolved into schoolyard chants, too cute for comfort. Though Pearson still is subdued, she manages to sound like she’s trying harder even as it seems like less: a nice synthesis of disaffected seriousness. The sparseness of the music compliments this world-weary attitude, conjuring late-night comedowns where fading youth reassesses its urgency. Over against the pop qualities of the singing, High Places are able to do weirder things with the instrumentation while eschewing the more recognizable instrumentation of the previous albums. Songs like “Morning Ritual” replicate the dub influenced post-punk fascination with syncopated rhythms and further offset the bubblegum potentiality of the songcraft.
But there’s still not enough — not enough noise or weirdness — to make the album really memorable. Original Colors is an interesting direction for High Places but no more coherent than the last couple albums, which offer glimpses of brilliance amid swaths of songs that are merely good enough. Original Colors strikes out at certain points, raising itself from merely pleasant ambient sound with catchy melodies or strange sounds, but for the most part it can go undetected.
Really High Places are rediscovering, in the realm of indie electronic, the slight reprise of dance music that Primal Scream restructured and revitalized, but without any of the same enthusiasm. Their periodic references, making up the middle of the album’s melodies and sounds, now seem like old hat. At its best, like on the last track, “Altos Lugares”, Original Colors spies a new piece of the spectrum blending familiar melody with new ideas in a promise of greatness. The calypso beat finally propels the song, rather than drags it down into heavy contemplation, and Pearson sings herself into a cheery anthem territory. But then the song and album end abruptly without ever congealing into the unforgettable. Their approach is too fragile. Even as High Places grow up, seeing darker realms, leaving behind youthful nostalgia, they are not yet able to reach the top.