High Places - Golden
A chance find from looking at high scoring albums on Metacritic, High Places are Rob Barber and vocalist Mary Pearson, an electronica duo from Brooklyn with plenty of buzz around them. Their name apparently comes from their love of...well, high places, like tall buildings and mountains, places from which you gain a wider perspective but given the dreamy, reverbed vocals and eclectic instrumentation on both this and their previously released singles collection, 03/07-09/07 , it could just as easily be a drug reference. When the pair met Barber was working in visual art and Pearson was completing a degree in bassoon performance. Yes, you did read that correctly. The range of sounds in their work is staggering, sometimes using folk instruments, layered vocals, sampled guitars and even household objects. The melding of traditional and modern and the general far-out nature of the lyrics, means that pop-folk-tronica is probably a better description of what they do, but just typing the phrase makes me shudder slightly. Their Myspace profile lists their influences as: Potassium, Vitamin C, B1, B6, B12, Fiber, Iron and Calcium, which doesn't really help either, does it?
03/07-09/07 is a collection of songs bursting with creative energy. The beats are syncopated and skittering all over the place, the eclectic instrumentation, sometimes cacophonous, has an almost tropical flavour to it and the vocals are reverbed and filtered through the gauze of cosmic spirituality. Sometimes it works, as on the charming 'Banana Slugs/Cosmonaut' which begins looking down at the titular invertebrates before raising itself to the heavens in philosophical enquiry - 'And we're all full of questions/And we would like to know just exactly where we came from/And exactly where we'll go/Well I know my limitations/And I know that I don't know/But still I know the constellations and I know the falling snow' or the joyous 'Jump In', commissioned for a school music programme, with its optimistic call to 'Get a move on/Jump in'. At other times it all becomes a bit twee ('I'm a pinprick on a pinprick on a pinprick of Time and Space/It takes a lot of guts to be a little baby in this place') but there's something about the warmth of Pearson's vocals which mean she just about gets away with it.
A collection of songs by its disparate nature is never going to hold together properly so it is interesting to hear the development of their sound on the self-titled debut album. Much of it remains the same: the varied instruments and found sounds, the always interesting fragmented beats and the lyrics filled with references to nature and the cosmos. But things have been tightened up a little, producing a slightly more conventional dance sound, which isn't to say that things are predictable, it's as loopy as before, but there's a polish to the proceedings which makes everything far more cohesive.
'The Storm' which opens the album leads to the growth of a tree, one of the recurring images from Pearson's lyrics. Her optimism is shown clearly when she climbs it, staining her clothes but declares proudly 'it was worth it'. The tropical flavours continue on 'Tree With The Lights In It' and 'Vision's The First' where a fairground organ closes things with a sinister twist. 'Gold Coin' is inspired by Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet, its lyrics coming close to the kind of hippy mumbo-jumbo ('Part of you is man/Part of you is god-self/The rest is just stumbling in the mist') which could put some people off, if the beats behind it weren't so fragmented. The truly sun filled 'Golden' is a highlight even if its sampled steel drums develop into something which sounds like a malfunctioning fruit machine. The last few tracks are very strong leading up to an excellent finish with 'From Stardust To Sentience' which reminded me of Lamb (remember them?). There aren't many singers who can tell you that you're 'billion year old carbon' and make it sound romantic. It would be too strong to talk about filler on an album which clocks in at just 30 minutes but the two instrumental tracks don't add an awful lot and miss the sweet vocals of Pearson.
Those who make music in their bedrooms should note the obvious glee with which High Places scour the rest of their apartment looking for new objects with which to make music. Something of that childish enthusiasm comes through even the polish of this album but it must be fascinating to watch them live. I'm not expecting to see them standing there with plastic bags and mixing bowls but there's precious little charm in most electronic music and High Places have it in glorious abundance.