(Thrill Jockey; 2011)
By Brian Riewer | 15 October 2011
Though the title seems desperate to draw the connection for you, Original Colors is not the release where High Places reclaim the sound that propelled them to the levels of adulation they received upon putting out their self-titled (2008) and 03/07-09/07 (2008)—and certainly no one would blame them for such a marketing move after the tepid critical reception of High Places Vs. Mankind (2010). Bafflingly rebranding a sound that had certainly not worn out its welcome after only one full-length and a compilation, Vs. Mankind twisted adolescently unbound tropical pop into something pernicious and dark, handcuffing the duo’s jocular nature with heavy 4/4 and grungy guitars. Rather than malevolent, the final product came out thick, uneven, and grumpy. And this from a band built on all things spry and easy to digest.
But despite whatever the residual feelings one might have towards High Places going dark in the past, here on Original Colors it works. The change is due partly to their re-focusing on a percussive backbone, stripping down guitars and most melodic parts to beats and beat-proximate elements as High Places once did. “The Pull” runs much the same course “Gold Coin” ran, but is refined by existential dread as opposed to childish ignorance: the former unspools the tight warmth of the latter and paints the gaps in black, stretching the song’s elements so far apart they echo off on another. Accented by singer Mary Pearson emerging from the fog after the arrangement becomes too overwhelming half-way through the song, “The Pull” is chilling in the same way “Gold Coin” was cute, setting the tone for the rest of the album in similar strokes.
These two albums—their self-titled and now Original Colors, which sit as the band’s best—operate in the same range but on different wavelengths, with different intentions inherent in that. Where High Places had all the dietary substance of a bag of Halloween candy, Original Colors works that innocence into transfixing unease. Both wade in three feet of water, but it’s the difference between playing on the beach near the shore and drifting in the middle of the ocean while hovering over a sandbar, fully aware of the miles and miles of dark and unexplored water surrounding. Sloping off into these murky depths, Original Colors exercises much of the low end of Vs. Mankind, but uses it as an admission for how little of the abyss they’ve actually explored, especially on echo-y, sparsely furnished tracks “Sonora” or “Sophia,” where the bass casts a murky pall over both instrumentation and Pearson’s oddly haunting voice.
Thusly, their lyrics and sonic hangers-on are injected with a new mystique and alien-ness. Computer-generated horns ominously stagger out of the shadows and bass lines peel off over the horizon on “Morning Ritual”; steel drums shimmer like crystal deposits on cavern walls throughout “The Pull,” setting off the twinkling xylophones glowing throughout “Banksia.” Cutting through the hazy “Dry Lake,” Pearson drops lines that seem deep and mysterious in context: “The wind came up, the stars came out, and Pisces skimmed upon the lake / The snow came down upon the ice, the lake just slowly drained away.” Lyrics like these demonstrate a band maturing—to plop down an obvious pun—despite being fundamentally similar to innocuous “The storm carved out a ditch which we filled with seeds and earth / And a tree grew” or “The captain says he hopes it will get better / We should not be sailing in such stormy weather.” It feels right.
Here High Places don’t weigh themselves down needlessly with morose arrangements and heavy subject matters like on Vs. Mankind, nor do they skitter carefree across the palate like the schoolchildren playing tag all over High Places and 03/07-09/07. Instead, Original Colors treks headlong into the expanse between their second and third releases, polyrhythmic backing folded down upon itself to appear more lithe and sleek, stories plunked like stones in the mix, not about amateur taxonomy and anachronistic currency, but laced with despair, creating something that doesn’t reference or depend on the existence of either bookended album to be principally understood. It is as “original” as this band is going to get, and for that we should be contented.