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Grouper: Poignancy In Simplicity

Grouper's "Alien Observer" contains only two instruments, but it dives deeper than it might first appear.MoreCloseclosemore
Grouper's "Alien Observer" contains only two instruments, but it dives deeper than it might first appear.

Given that it's 2011 — when the production and distribution of new music has never been more democratic or overwhelming — Liz Harris' art flirts closely with a sentiment that could plague, say, a precocious 6-year-old painter or the first Vampire Weekend record: "I could have done that" or "My kid could have done that." And, to be fair, the adjectives that describe Harris' solo project Grouper don't distinguish her from a zillion other Grouper-hopefuls doing the exact same thing: ambient, isolated, reverb-heavy, minimalist, depressing. If you were to listen to Harris' incredible 2008 breakthrough Dragging a Dead Deer Up a Hill, you might not be able to distinguish between "Heavy Water/I'd Rather Be Sleeping" and "We've All Time to Sleep" upon first blush.

Yet, like an Aelita Andre portrait (or Vampire Weekend's Contra, if you're keeping score), Harris' aesthetic is unmistakably her own. Her songs may not seem unique in relation to one another, but her sound is instantly recognizable and disarmingly affecting. We could all go record music in remote cabins in Wisconsin if we wanted to, but only some of us do, and even fewer do it well.

"Alien Observer," from Grouper's two-part album A I A, emphasizes the point here. The song contains only two instruments — an organ and vocals — though there are multiple voices. The organ part amounts to three alternating phrases, which, with all due respect, could be played by your kid. Lyric-wise, there is a verse (two couplets, one of which seems to be repeated later in the song) and a chorus. Throw in a few harmonies and some echo effects and call it a day.

But none of that explains the hypnotic, poignant undercurrent of "Alien Observer." The Wurlitzer melody may be straightforward, but it has a sinuous, graceful pulse to it. That pulse finds momentum in the line-by-line stacking of voices in the verse, surging gorgeously as the harmonies emerge; the moments in which the vocals and organ bleed into one amorphous burst of reverb are simply too alluring to write off.

Much of Grouper's music has an otherworldliness to it, and the words in this case bring that quality to the fore: "Gonna take a spaceship / Fly back to the stars / Alien observer / in a world that isn't ours." It's a song about isolation — a song we've heard thousands of times before — and yet Harris finds a way to dive deeper in simple and unassuming ways. If for no other reason, it may be labeled "childish" in that regard.

Copyright NPR 2018.


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