Liz Harris unveiled the work of a lifetime with last year’s stunning and evocative A I A. Like most everything Grouper-related, the two-album set (Dream Loss and Alien Observer) was both an oblique add-on to Harris’ weblike musical history and an impressionistic excavation of ideas from a faintly perceptible future. Harris’ music is serene and severe, architectural, womb-like despite habitual sojourns into the depths of cold and distant space.
But I’ll back up: Foreign Body is not a Grouper record, though it bears many of the hallmarks of Harris’ past work: vocals that hover and burrow simultaneously; spacious, watery drone that carries a buzzing sense of anxiety. The well-named Mirrorring is billed as a collaboration between Harris and Jesy Fortino of Seattle-based folk outfit Tiny Vipers, itself a formidable and oft-overlooked outfit. Fortino’s two excellent full-lengths exhibit certain Grouper-like characteristics, but her music is more direct and aerodynamic; it usually consists solely of Fortino’s voice and acoustic guitar, but what she wrings from simplicity is often bliss.
In fact, it’s Fortino who lends Foreign Body its most memorable moments. “Silent From Above” is the strongest track on the album, and despite some spiraling background noise and some nice echoing vocals courtesy Harris, it’s basically a Tiny Vipers tune: plain, gorgeous, and dimly unsettling. Runner-up “Mine” is a truer collaboration between the two artists. The song’s desolate landscape and brilliant, unexpected chord changes call to mind sections of Grouper’s Dream Loss. Fortino’s intoxicative vocals and melancholic guitar picking fade into the distance, while Harris’ soft, steely drone sits underneath, poised to explode at any moment.
Too often Foreign Body feels detached, disengaged from any unifying stylistic theme. “Cliffs” and “Drowning the Call” are wandering, pleasant New Age anthems for an even newer age, but they lack weight, aurally or otherwise. And the music sometimes feels like a retread — a term I’ve never before thought to associate with either of these artists — opener “Fell Sound,” though categorically gorgeous, is a shadow of the more boldly painted strokes of Grouper’s past, while the album’s other bookend, “Mirror of Our Sleeping,” is distractingly reminiscent of Alien Observer’s transcendent title track.
Harris and Fortino are undoubtedly two of the most talented and electrifying songwriters around. They share a definite aesthetic, if not an exact musical vision — “Lynchian” is an evasive and overused term, though in a recent interview both women did profess an affinity for Julee Cruise — and Foreign Body has moments of generous lucidity. Yet it struggles to find a foothold amid a flood of ideas, as if each performer were vaguely unsure about her role. I hope the two continue their newfound artistic relationship; steadier collective footing could result in something stratospheric.