Album Review: Grouper—“Ruins”

By James Li, Feature Photo via FACT

Liz Harris, the Portland-based musician who records as Grouper, uses the same instruments on nearly all of her albums: acoustic guitar, overdubbed vocals, Wurlitzer organ, and tape manipulations. It’s a small toolkit, but a versatile one, as none of Grouper’s albums sound the same, even if they sound like only Harris could have made it. Grouper’s latest album, Ruins, deviates from Harris’s formula, and the result is her barest and most intimate album yet.

Harris recorded most of Ruins in 2011 while on an arts residency in Aljezur, a village in the south of Portugal, with only an upright piano and a Sony 4-track. Harris has always been something of a minimalist, but Ruins is even more pared down. Harris titled her album after Aljezur’s castle ruins, but the albums sound like the skeletons of songs, stripped of ornamentation. Harris’s piano playing on Ruins is sparse and repetitive, evoking Erik Satie or Arvo Pärt.

Album art for Ruins

Album art for Ruins

The production on Ruins is raw and untreated, to the point of being demo-quality, but it works in Harris’s favour. The songs are intimate, and the homemade production quality adds to that effect. Harris’s previous albums relied on tape loops, effects pedals, and reverb for ambience. But on Ruins, Harris takes the phrase “ambient music” literally, as her surroundings serve as an instrument. The rain falls, and crickets and frogs hum in the background. You can even make out of the beeping tone of Harris’s microwave in a power outage in “Labyrinth.”

The album title also hints at emotional fallout. In a press release for Ruins, Harris said that the recording process was inspired by walking on the beach to mull over “political anger and emotional garbage.” Lyrics were never a highlight on Harris’s previous albums and they’re barely a highlight on Ruins, as four of the eight tracks are instrumental. Harris still delivers her vocals in a hushed whisper, but her lyrics are clearer than ever, and when she sings, her words cut deep.

Harris isn’t really a confessional singer-songwriter, but the lyrics on Ruins deal with love and loss. “There’s nothing left to hold,” she sings on “Holding” as the music disintegrates around her. “Clearing” is Harris’s take on a break-up song. In one of the most bruising lines on the album, Harris sings “maybe you were right when you said I’d never been in love.” And maybe not — on the following track, “Call Across Rooms,” Harris attempts to write a love letter: “I have a present to give you / when we finally figure it out.”

Harris’s approach on her previous albums was to swaddle her songs in layers of effects. On Ruins, she takes the opposite approach, peeling every layer back. The odd track out on Ruins is the 11-minute droning closer, “Made of Air,” which Harris recorded in 2004. It’s a much-needed palate cleanser after the emotionally wounding songs that preceded it. Ruins is so intimate that it feels like you’re in the same room as Harris, but by the end, you’re alone on the beach, lost in your own thoughts as the waves lap against the shore. (Kranky)

Listen: “Holding”

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