By means of their distinctive brand of hypnotic naivety, Rob Barker and Mary Pearson have become something of a cult treasure. Here in the UK, they have been somewhat unfairly ignored by much of the mainstream music press, their following instead cultivated by a dedicated few in the blogosphere and online media. Whilst much of the group’s appeal lies in the whispery, detached vocals of Mary Pearson, they have admirably resisted any urge to lock down or limit their sound.
Their earliest recordings relied upon a delicate, finely balanced mix of whimsy, a percussive curiosity and fluid, wispy melodies. Now on their third album, Barker and Pearson have moved further from the pastoral wonder of those initial sessions, increasing the use of electronics and enhancing the potency and presence of bass frequencies. Those who thought, somewhat unfairly, that last year’s High Places Vs. Mankind found the group sounding more conventional will not have their fears assuaged much by its successor.
Subtle deviation from a successful artistic template will always provoke some detractors. So far, Original Colours seems to have been rather predictably dismissed as a further dilution of the High Places sound. There is certainly a case to be made that the best moments here retain some of the mystery and childlike inquisitiveness of their first singles. The Pull seems to be surrounded by a vivid, lingering aural glow, whilst Sophia greatly depends on the swathes of reverb in which Pearson’s dispassionate vocal is bathed.
Perhaps the one problem with High Places more generally is a lack of textural and atmospheric variation. Their long form releases, none of which are without significant merit, do tend to blur together into a single, slightly monotonous listening experience. At times, the sequencing of Original Colours seems designed to disprove this theory – with the Julianna Barwick-esque manipulated choir of Twenty Seven giving way to the bright, glossy electropop of Altos Lugares.
Sometimes, however, the reliance on a mood somewhere between sleep and dreamy transcendence can take its toll. The atmospherics on Ahead Stop are a little too predictable. It is an experiment in sound that is largely missing a sense of experimentation – there seems little to engage or sustain interest. There is also a notably darker, murkier imperative at the heart of Original Colours and the results are sometimes a little introverted.
The best moments come when the duo branch out away from their cocooned isolation towards something more akin to a cityscape. Dry Lake benefits from its remarkably simple, mesmeric groove and is a prime reminder of how this duo are so adept at drawing supreme results from a small number of constituent parts. It’s hard to resist the pulsing heart of Banksia, especially when it bears more than a passing resemblance to the Countdown theme tune.
Frequently compared with Animal Collective in the past, they seem to be heading down a different path here. It’s hard to find adequate reference points – but they do seem to be increasingly Anglophile. At various points, Original Colours is reminiscent of later Saint Etienne and Massive Attack. This may be a transitional phase for the group, but it is at the very least impressive that the only expectations they seem keen on fulfilling happen to be their own. Regardless of the precise direction of the music or the balance of its individual elements, there will always be something alluring and intoxicating about Pearson’s vocals.