Grouper - "Alien Observer" (A I A : Alien Observer)
While listening to A I A : Dream Loss / Alien Observer, the latest release from Grouper (née Liz Harris), you feel like you’re being led on. Harris’s fragile vocals are always present and beg to be understood, but remain muddled, nearly interchangeable with the music. The instrumentation grows louder and more distorted on standouts like “Vapor Trails” and “I Saw a Ray,” but never quite grants catharsis. Harris’s ability to keep herself on the periphery without allowing the listener to get a good handle on her is the primary source of tension on the two LPs and, along with her haunting, gorgeous voice, a factor that sets her apart from an increasingly large pack of atmospheric singer-songwriters that includes James Blake, Glasser and Beach House.
All of these acts exhibit a lot of thought in their ambient garb, carefully balancing message and mystery. A I A articulates that struggle well; Harris makes sure we stay curious about the woman behind the curtain, but rarely to the detriment of the music. Almost all of the creative choices on these records — delicate singing low in the mix, never-quite-intelligible lyrics, lack of repetition — serve to emphasize this dissonance.
In less capable hands, A I A‘s moaning vocals and minimal tones could sound tossed off, but these 13 songs usually fit together nicely, creating an uneasy but gorgeous density. Over almost 80 minutes, that cohesiveness can sometimes feel like a lack of dynamics, perhaps a reason Dream Loss and Alien Observer are deemed two separate albums. Whether you’re up for over an hour of Harris’s signature sounds depends on how willing you are to go along with its utter lack of resolution. In spite of A I A‘s lush, detailed production and Harris’s hauntingly beautiful vocals, it’s awfully easy to find oneself on the fence about whether or not its scope is justified, an ambivalence that seems oddly fitting.