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Grouper - The Man Who Died in His Boat

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Artist: Grouper

Album: The Man Who Died in His Boat

Label: Kranky

Review date: Jan. 30, 2013

In a way, Liz Harris has been doing one thing on every Grouper record. That isn’t to say that they are all the same, or that she is repeating herself; this record doesn’t sound exactly like any other Grouper album, not even Dragging a Dead Deer Up a Hill, which was recorded at the same time. But on every LP, Harris creates an impression of something that is emerging but never quite there, and she’s done it again on The Man Who Died in His Boat.

The title comes from a story Harris tells of a childhood memory of an abandoned sailboat that ran aground near her home. Do the songs tell the story of the boat, or the man who parted company with it for reasons unknown? It’s hard to say; since the song titles are inscribed in a handwritten, black-on-black scrawl, it’s not easy to make them out. It’s harder still to discern what the words are about given Harris’s obfuscatory delivery. Overdubbed vocal lines crisscross behind her rudimentary guitar figures, and any time you get near a word, a wave of echo pushes it away. The elements cohere into something that is both attractive and opaque. Perhaps the titular tale does not relate to any lyrical theme, but to the music itself, which drifted for reasons unknown in Harris’s archives for four years before coming to light. Why? That’s not part of the story; however, the denial of some key element that would tie everything together links it to the rest of the Grouper discography.

But by looking at her discography, one can fix this record within the timeline of Harris’s ever-incomplete development. The earliest Grouper music was anti-virtuosic in the extreme, composed mostly of vocal sounds marshaled and deployed by a delay pedal. Over time, instruments (mainly guitars and piano), melodies and words have all materialized out of the original fog, but even when you can hear them, the songs never give up their meaning. I’d guess that these tracks were initially filed away because they aren’t quite as clear and overtly song-like as the ones that made it onto Dragging a Dead Deer Up a Hill. Four years on, the reasons for their prolonged absence probably don’t matter as much as their shadowy presence.

By Bill Meyer

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