Mary Pearson has a precious way of singing. It isn’t just the delicacy of her voice, not just the well-mannered and introverted syntax of her lyrics; it’s something about the way she writes her melodies, the way they keep to themselves, holed up through short lifetimes of diatonic isolation, a little sad but still self-sufficient, like Emily Dickinson. Her song subjects sometimes tend toward the dreamy and fantastic, like the story of the girl in “She’s a Wild Horse.” Rob Barber’s musical arrangements give her performances enough space to breathe and be themselves, but they’re assertive enough that they can exist in counterpoint with keyboard and guitar lines. Layering is one of the strongest things about High Places; it’s strong even when the vocals don’t try to be.
Studio technique can be excuse, especially among our present era’s crop of blog-friendly pedal-junkie bedroom pop acts. High Places characterized themselves on early recordings with a loose-limbed, leftfield take on dance rhythms and a fearless embrace of the heavy and expansive echo of dub. On their newest outing, High Places vs. Mankind, it is refreshing to hear them scale back on the indeterminate textural wash that has proven to be so endemic to their genre. This time around, reverb is more of a tool then a reflex. Pearson’s vocals take center stage more often, which sometimes, as in “On Giving Up,” reveals an increased darkness in subject matter. The interjections of echo on songs like “Canada” add a sense of purpose and intention, even when the song structures remain stubbornly open-ended. Even the instrumental psychedelic interludes, “The Channon” and “Drift Slayer,” despite their lack of melody, are rich enough with subtlety and textural detail to reward those who happen to be paying attention.
Sure, the word “versus” is in the title, but this album still feels as nonthreatening as the vegans who gave birth to it. The word’s adversarial connotation can’t be anything more than a rhetorical pose, in the same way that the dance and hip-hop overtones in the drum programming, while satisfyingly executed, serve more as conceptual reference points than functional ones. And the increased directness in new songs, which are more story- and character-centered than some of their navel-gazing predecessors, is merely another layer formed around a core that remains fraught with resignation and the fear of death. “The Longest Shadows” embraces action only as a hypothesis, with lyrics like “Once we get there, there’s nothing left to do,” and talk of “shaking the dust off” and hollow hopes of purpose: “I’ve got some work to do.” The album’s closing meditation on mortality, “When It Comes,” embraces gravity without feeling heavy itself: “Let’s run from the precipice/ Lest death get the best of us,” Pearson sings. Run? There’s no urgency here.
Modern production tools have as much power to erase strengths as to enhance them. With their newest album, High Places use the studio more as a medicine than a recreational drug, taking a step toward purposefulness and maturity. The propulsion provided by their new developments — the barely adorned guitars and the more sure-footed structural designs — brings vs. Mankind across as the next step in defining who High Places are, instead of the sort of developmental stopgap that makes us wonder why we ever believed internet hype in the first place. But the love of comfort that’s built into the way they make music still gives the impression of an unweeded garden, letting distractions and enemies survive instead of pruning them away. It’s welcome growth beyond a simpleminded DIY bliss, with hints of further depths. But it’s not quite the miracle of transformation they may still be capable of.