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High Places - High Places Vs. Mankind

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Artist: High Places

Album: High Places Vs. Mankind

Label: Thrill Jockey

Review date: Apr. 22, 2010

On their early singles, High Places built an ephemeral sound: elusive pop numbers that were as much about a hazy, disintegrating atmosphere than the generally upbeat vocals or densely (for a duo, at least) constructed music. The music made by Mary Pearson and Rob Barber seemed tailor-made for the small venues at which they got their start — DIY spaces off the L train in Brooklyn and hundred-capacity venues on the Lower East Side. But during a higher-profile show opening for No Age at New York’s Bowery Ballroom, something became apparent: this sound had a greater range than anticipated. For all of the influence of tape degradation on their sound, they had never neglected the presence of a low end in that sound, and thus, their set worked surprisingly well in a space three or four times the size of their usual haunts.

High Places Vs. Mankind is the group’s second album and, while its ten songs aren’t likely to become mainstays of your local dance club, at least a couple of them aren’t far from that. (A theoretical album of remixes of these songs could be as illuminating as the original works themselves.) “On Giving Up” is particularly catchy, with Pearson’s refrain of “Tonight is going to be the night” delivered over a steady rhythm with background echoes of dub. And “When It Comes” puts lyrical meditations on mortality atop a series of crackling, propulsive beats.

Even when not leaning towards the danceable side of the spectrum, there’s a more fleshed-out approach present. Much like their onetime tourmates Beach House, High Places seem to be moving pre-emptively against the potential limitations of a lineup of two. “She’s a Wild Horse” begins as an exercise in subtlety until the appearance of a Tinariwen-esque guitar part halfway through, a device also used on “On a Hill in a Bed on a Road in a House.” Even on songs that seem characterized by the group’s historic haziness, such as “Constant Winter,” the beats hit harder, and the arrangements seem more suited to a full band. “I am a storm of constant winter,” Pearson sings, and it could be a mission statement — both for the album’s intensity and for its starker tone.

Until now, High Places’ music could be described in terms of brightness: the songs proceeded at a brisk, even jaunty, pace and abounded with a sense of wonder. High Places Vs. Mankind, as befits the title, is more tumultuous; that “me against the world” attitude reflected in the title might be a winking nod to the band entering its own (metaphorical) adolescence. These might be the awkward years, but they’ve resulted in an album that’s both rewarding on its own merits and a suggestion of interesting progressions still to come.

By Tobias Carroll

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