Album Review: High Places Vs. Mankind by High Places
Very Good, Based on 9 Critics
Drowned In Sound - 80 Based on rating 8/10
High Places were always something of an anomaly in the Brooklyn scene. If music and art is intrinsically linked to the environment in which it is made, Rob Barber and Mary Pearson took one look at their surroundings and veered in the polar opposite direction. They appeared to be using their bucolic take on electronic music as a means of primitive escapism, as a way of wiping the grime of New York from their faces, to disappear for an hour or so into songs flooded with a rustic, agrarian light that you could never find in the city.
Though they know their way around a percussive groove, you would never confuse what High Places do with anything resembling dance music. The sound sketches of their early singles and self-titled debut were always too temporary, even for dance music; they were built from scratch with found sounds and brought to a climax in a brief amount of time. But now here comes High Places vs.
High Places gained prominence in the Brooklyn DIY loft show scene thanks in large part to their incendiary live performances, and a charismatic frontwoman in Mary Pearson. Their records, while fine enough, never fully captured the electricity of their shows. But High Places vs. Mankind doesn't even attempt to do this, hewing more closely to soft-focus ascetic experimentation, recalling the ghostly ethereality of early His Name is Alive amalgamated with Eastern-tinged tribal percussion.
High Places showed up in 2008 pegged as a Brooklyn act, but they never seemed very metropolitan. If anything, their innocent, home-recorded songs felt pastoral or coastal-- concerned more with breaking out of the city rather than toiling in it. That escapist tendency, mixed with their sonic primitivism and hopeful outlook, was refreshing. Even if their style wasn't exactly groundbreaking (we'd heard others combine global polyrhythms, hip-hop beats, and field recordings before), their approach was unique.
Reviewing High Places’ full-length debut with any clairvoyance seemed impossible without accepting a series of inevitable paradoxes, that: (A) its craft would be commended, if not always enjoyed, (B) each song worth complimenting would be negated by a disappointing nemesis-track, and (C) ultimately High Places has to choose you… you can’t play-repeat your way over its hurdles. If there was any consolation to that 2008 review, it was the grim acknowledgement that I wasn’t alone in my indifference. Fan reception offered no easy consensus, with half the camp professing their preference for the singles collection 03/07-09/07, while the self-titled LP’s score on Metacritic showcased a careful tedium that, in most cases, shrugged that High Places deserved the benefit of the doubt.
Mary Pearson has a precious way of singing. It isn’t just the delicacy of her voice, not just the well-mannered and introverted syntax of her lyrics; it’s something about the way she writes her melodies, the way they keep to themselves, holed up through short lifetimes of diatonic isolation, a little sad but still self-sufficient, like Emily Dickinson. Her song subjects sometimes tend toward the dreamy and fantastic, like the story of the girl in “She’s a Wild Horse.” Rob Barber’s musical arrangements give her performances enough space to breathe and be themselves, but they’re assertive enough that they can exist in counterpoint with keyboard and guitar lines.
When a band has a highly identifiable and unique sound and the bandmembers decide to change it, they’d better make damn sure the new one is just as interesting as the one they left behind. Along with moving from Brooklyn to Los Angeles after the release of their self-titled 2008 record, the duo of Mary Pearson and Rob Barber made some pretty drastic alterations to their sound. Their early recordings were built around hypnotic loops made from percussion instruments, found sound, and household items that were warped into non-recognizable sounds.
With such a lush, rich, intricate and distinct sound being so well defined across early singles and 2008’s eponymous debut LP, the most obvious hazard for Rob Barber and Mary Pearson trading under the name of High Places could have been to lapse lazily into repetitious formula. Thankfully, it’s something the duo conscientiously avoid doing with this second proper album. Building on the two brilliant between-albums tracks released last year – the digital-only single “I Was Born” and the epic split-12” piece “Late Bloomer” – Barber and Pearson have found a way to widen their sonic reach whilst adding a more magnified sense of focus.
They’ve invention enough to outlast most of the chillwave players. Mike Diver 2010 High Places’ debut album of 2008, an eponymous collection that rightly attracted its share of plaudits, was capped by a song of such exquisite elegance that it’s effectively obscured its makers’ other efforts ever since. That track, From Stardust to Sentience, has proved a blessing and a curse: its ethereal splendour continues to captivate, but it’s far from the sole feather in this duo’s multi-coloured cap.