Grouper Grid of Points

[Kranky; 2018]

Styles: minimalist, ambient, field recording
Others: Tara Jane O’Neil, Benoît Pioulard, Meredith Monk

We’re going to the beach. Not the clean, iridescent shores of film scenes or sepia photographs, signifiers of a landscape that privilege the temporal over the spatial — it is always the childhood or the honeymoon that we beckon toward, and whether the sand in the picture belongs to Blackpool or New Jersey is mostly irrelevant — but the real beach. The sun is not shining. It rained a few hours ago, in fact, or is just about to, because there’s a dull kind of sadness in the air that lingers either side of the storm. To your left is a row of shops and cafés, closed on Sunday. To your right is a parking lot, asphalt grey in keeping with the weather, littered but otherwise empty. In front of you is the sea.

The sunless beach is a powerful image for the same reason that suicide rates spike at Christmas: from early childhood, we are inundated with words and pictures reinforcing the idea that happiness is something to be manually allocated, that weekends and holidays are the ecstatic reprieves that we deserve from our institutional labor, and that these times and places represent our best shot at real joy. When reality doesn’t match the picture, our first assumption is never that the picture needs fixing, but that our lives are out of sync. The map supersedes the territory. Like no other artist, Grouper’s Liz Harris seems to sing from these points of dislocation, lighting up lost or forgotten neural pathways like a lighthouse in the fog. In contrast to 2014’s colossal Ruins, Grid of Points feels relatively slight, though it remains incredibly spacious.

The academic marriage of physical, cultural, and mental zones is nothing new, but it has historically focused on the city, either as direct focus (psychogeography, flânerie) or dialectical periphery (Marion Shoard’s edgelands, Gloria E. Anzaldúa’s Borderlands/La Frontera). Harris is no flaneur though, and while Grouper’s opaque lyrics and increasingly skeletal compositions mean that any interpretation is likely to be personal, it seems undeniable that if Grid of Points occupies a physical location, it is far removed from busy urban scenes. Nonetheless, the meshing of organic and concrete imagery is a near-constant. Within less than a minute of the album’s opening, “The Races” sings of the rain falling, before giving way to the quiet melancholy of “Parking Lot.”

Like its predecessor, the album is musically stripped to its most utilitarian elements, focusing on Harris’s voice and piano, with almost nothing else permitted to enter the frame. If there is a notable difference in sound, it’s that the artist’s singing no longer marches in strict time and pitch with the piano’s melody, but ventures into the occasional portamento, gifting a few beautiful jazz notes to the piece. It is also seven tracks long, less than half an hour of music; though as Harris herself notes, it is a record that feel stylistically sparse anyway: “Though brief, it is complete. The intimacy and abbreviation of this music allude to an essence that the songs lyrics speak more directly of.”

It’s also a more meditative piece, and as such the highlights are not pronounced in the manner of “Holding” or “Heavy Water/I’d Rather Be Sleeping.” If there is a peak, it is perhaps the comforting lilt of “Driving,” though in truth the tracks drift into each other, each as devoted to the whole as opposing ends of a waterfall. At last, the trance is broken by a faint whooshing sound arriving in the distance. It soon becomes apparent that it’s a train, but in those first few seconds, it sounds to me like the gasp of the ocean withdrawing from the beach. Perhaps that’s just where my mind goes, a child of the seaside. I think that’s the magic of it.

Eureka!

Some releases are so incredible we just can’t help but exclaim EUREKA! While many of our picks here defy categorization and explore the constructed boundaries between ‘music’ and ‘noise,’ others complement, continue, or rupture traditions that provide new forms and ways of listening. Not all of our favorites will be listed here, but we think each EUREKA! album is worthy of careful consideration. This section is a work-in-progress, so expect its definition to be in perpetual flux.

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