Dragging a Dead Deer Up a Hill
By Mark Abraham | 11 August 2008
I’m not entirely sure about the glaze that permeates Grouper’s third album like a pall. Listening to it the first few times, it seemed rather imposed, reducing a set of wonderful acoustic pop songs to a…well, I can’t think of a good metaphor for imposed haunting, beyond the ludicrously overlong Spike-is-incorporeal arc from season 5 of Angel. But the haze doesn’t necessarily detract from the album, and it certainly doesn’t disguise how wonderful many of these songs are; I’m just not really sure what it adds beyond calculated non-clarity. To compare Grouper to reasonably contemporary artists from the first half of this decade, bands like George and early Espers give off a similar atmosphere, but in with those bands it seemed part and parcel of an attempt to conceptualize the sadder ends o the emotional spectrum as sonic sound. At times, though not all the time, the songs on Dragging a Dead Deer Up a Hill sort of seem put upon.
That’s conceptual criticism, though; the production is mildly distracting, I guess, but these songs are still by and large gorgeous, kind of like Hips and Makers (1994) played in a concrete basement. And I love that idea and making pretty unpretty, maintaining the shapes of simple and familiar alternative rock patterns and hollowing them out. If my uncertainty suggest Liz Harris hasn’t succeeded, that’s not what I mean. I’m just not sure if she couldn’t have succeeded with more variety, maybe. Twelve tracks which mostly feature acoustic guitar, low-in-the-mix vocals, and basic imposed effects is a lot to take in one sitting. Maybe I just wish the use of effects was more built into the tracks rather than—again, only at times—spread on top of them.
The later pieces are my favorites of the material presented here. “Tidal Wave” adopts the haze, finds a haunting melody, and rides it. The largely monotonous noise actually works well, pushing a blurry idea at you, a held musical sigh that spins towards its inevitable fade out, a murmured answer that can be interpreted in any number of ways. “We’ve All Time to Sleep” is a beautiful song too, though I might suggest it kind of cheats the ending of “Tidal Wave” a bit; Harris’s vocal harmonies are simple and lean but astounding for it. In general, the tracks from “I’m Dragging a Dead Deer Up a Hill” on seem to own the effects stuff, exploiting it to capture nuances and background blemishes that add weight to the music.
The previous songs are more complicated to figure out. Harris’s earlier Grouper albums subsumed whole tracks in heavy fuzz effects; Dragging a Dead deer Up a Hill may display some of the growing pains she’s working out in attempting to find a sound between the early ambient-style work she made her name on and more poppish fare. Beautiful numbers like “Heavy Water/I’d Rather Be Sleeping” and “Stuck” prove she’s got the compositional stuff down, but both tracks seem to work against the blurry feel the production gives them. Rather than teasing out the insides of these tracks, plumbing the vibrancy of their composition, the effects sometimes have the opposite effect: making everything sound similar. And again, that’s mild criticism, in some ways, but I can’t help but feel that this album wants to have it several ways, but the net result of following all those paths means it plays out only one way. It’s not a bad way, by any means; it’s just as exciting as I sense it could be.