For Brooklyn duo High Places, debuting with 03/07-09/07 – a collection of disparate oddities – may be considered something of a misstep. Singles and compilations appearances are, in many ways, the ideal way for musicians to make their first forays into the overpopulated wilds of physical product; and indeed, the rise of the free download – the hyped mp3 hit – only underlines this. These avenues provide a comfortable way to make a tentative beginning, often in the esteemed curatorial company of more established artists and record labels.
The problem is of course that compilations aren’t composed with cohesion in mind. 03/07-09/07 sounded like the same song played a bunch of times; it hinted elsewhere without stepping off the doormat. How pleasantly surprising then this self-titled album proper is. High Places does more than simply elaborating on ideas found in its predecessor; instead, the group extend their reach, bringing a more dance-oriented turn to their dizzy, fantastical cavern of sticks and stoners. (Ironically, too, the majority of its songs are more worthy singles than practically anything found on the singles-oriented release.) ‘The Tree With The Lights In It’ won’t capture Ibiza, but its beats – apparently at least partly influenced by the über-hip dancehall/baile funk rhythmic resurgence – are crisp and satisfying even after the requisite flaky, skittering effects have made their mark. Chirping melodies enter and exit the stage with charming determination, squawking up through processed instrument sounds (we’re told of guitar, banjo, keyboard) and accordion-esque swells. Some of the most endearing lines sound as though played on steel drums (but in this Obtuse New World, they’re almost definitely not) – and it just wouldn’t be High Places without a million shuffling, ticking bits of percussion all over the place.
The drawback remains Mary Pearson’s vocals. Generally buried under a heaped pile of reverb and delay effects, Pearson’s phrases tend to trail off in rather uninspired fashion, leaving some pieces with a less-than-satisfying focus. Admittedly that might be the point – the blurred focus, anyway – and at least things have improved since 03/07-09/07 (which begged the question: when is something a signature style, and when’s it just too repetitive? Does it come down to taste?). ‘Gold Coin’ sees Pearson softly half-mumbling; I’m aware that people will find this endearing (self-obfuscating shyness being a highly sought after indie trait), yet to these ears it sounds patently out of place amidst the record’s most kicking tune. The point is that Pearson’s vocals are not upsetting, but there’s the unavoidable feeling that they could and should be better – more consistent, at least. A notable exception is closing track ‘From Stardust To Sentience’, where the vocal melodies slip perfectly into the busy, odd-timed and downright pretty arrangement like they were born to be there.
‘From Stardust…’ is in fact an enchanting way to end the album’s ten songs, wrapping up a tidy and concise half hour set. Where High Places may have initially sounded like mere purveyors of that nascent pseudo-‘ethnic’ (ick!) psych-hippy-freak-folk-tronica thing (and who doesn’t love a good hyphenation?), this release distinguishes them once and for all as a creative force to be reckoned with. And while not entirely peerless – Australian artists like Inquiet and Pompey are kindred spirits – there’s still no mistaking their sound and all its quirks. Clumsy timing may be all the rage, as well as the once-untouchable cheese of pitch-shift effects (with the feedback turned up), but somehow each transgression provides the right context for the others.
High Places is not without its shortcomings – sure – but nor is it without a kind of giddying, lofty magnetism. A valuable contribution to the abstract pop landscape, it’s the sound of musicians doing their own thing, and getting better at it too.