The Columbia River, one of the grandest and most revered waterways in the United States, having wound itself across sacred reservations, past the snowcapped peak of Mount Hood and through the areas many national forests each filled with giant redwoods and thunderous waterfalls, finds itself succumbing to the ocean at the picturesque clapperboard town of Astoria, Oregon.
Eagle eyed viewers might recognise the waterlogged locale and its nearby Cannon Beach, dominated by giant rock promontories that materialise through the fog and block out the low winter sun, for their recent historical links to teenage adventurers The Goonies and sparkly day sleeper Edward Cullen, but by far the most captivating visitor has to be Liz Harris, who on her new record resurrects the Grouper name after recording 2019’s After Its Own Death / Walking In A Spiral Towards The House release under the mantle of Nivhek, and delves deeper into the histories of the land around her.
Longstanding fans will delight in hearing that these nine tracks, taken from sessions recorded over the last decade and a half at her Pacific Northwest home studio and at various art residencies she’s attended or self-initiated around Mount Tamalpais in the Bay Area. They find Harris stepping away from the choral ambiance and glacial minimalism of the Nivhek era and retreating back to the nocturnal ebbs and crackling timbres of earlier albums such as Dragging A Dead Deer Up A Hill and The Man Who Died In His Boat.
The tumultuous accumulations and disparately winding path of the Columbia are conjured up on first track Followed The Ocean. Akin to being caught in a sudden rainstorm, ungraciously splashed by roaring traffic, or attempting to swim across particularly raging rapids, it’s carried on its mystifying way by Harris’s trademark submerged harmonies, each one coated in a strata of marshy noise. Sombre, damp and murky in tone, it’s a portent of ongoing restlessness. Lyrical clarity may not be immediately apparent but in its frothy wake you know that something profound, that once weighed heavy, has been addressed.
With the buoyant Unclean Mind which follows, she appears to find the requisite warmth and shelter needed. Comparable to the rural campfire folk of Vashti Bunyan and low light chanson of Sybille Baier, despite all its talk of strange behaviours, erratic bodies and interference, as the song barrels along, you sense Harris has again made peace with some prior affliction. Along with Disordered Minds, Pale Interior and Ode To The Blue it’s one of many titles on Shade that references mental anguish. If The Man Who Died In His Boat sounds like the title of one of Oliver Sacks’ novels, then Shade recalls the inner monologues of one of the late doctor’s complex patients. The overarching theme of the record would seem to be psychological obfuscations and the reassurances of the familiar as a way to calm the resultant fracturing. Thankfully, for every tribulation Harris has faced in her professional and personal life, for every stumble she’s made or fractious path taken, a wave of comfort, security and reconciliation has followed.
The Bunyan and Baier comparisons are once more evident on standout track Ode To The Blue, with Harris’s voice lower yet emotionally clearer than she’s dared to go before. Time stops still, dust particles dance in the air and you feel the pull of fingers drag across steel strings and cedar fretboards as another enchanted fairytale gets writ. Remembering a fraught narrative that had left her tear streaked, she chants a spectral reverie to that of the near past which haunts her, as she attempts to ground herself within her surroundings. At one point she appears to pause the track’s benign strumming as she rights herself once more and hums its chilly refrain.
This trick, this course correction, is applied throughout the record on The Way Her Hair Falls and on the teetering and unsafe fluttering loops of Disordered Minds, a sequestered cousin to the nostalgic decasia of Harris’s collaborator and confidant William Basinski. Although it might share some vague memory of a melody with Arab Strap’s intoxicated anthem The First Big Weekend, on The Way Her Hair Falls, Harris replaces drunken Scottish bravado and after work camaraderie with distant reverence and intimate yearning and on the cavernous Basement Mix you hear reflections of Leyland Kirby’s work as The Caretaker. The album closes with the contemplative eulogy of Kelso (Blue Sky), possibly a lament for Paul Clipson, the noted film maker and fine artist, who sadly passed away three years ago, Harris’s voice crisp and clear acknowledging how bereft she feels at the loss, but aware that blue sky lurks at the edges of her mind, that happiness waits around the corner.
If his hard working cosy flannel allure and sincere back catalogue makes Mount Eerie’s Phil Elverum the unassuming patriarch of the contemporary Pacific Northwest music scene, a defiant rock who has held steadfast and true for eons, dominating the cultural and geographic panorama, susceptible to brittle erosion from the seasons of emotional conflict he has gracefully endured, then Harris could be seen as the region’s earth mother, spiritually effusive and untenably guiding, her impenetrable and heartfelt evocations carried along by clouds, tides, breezes and streams. Filling out the rest of the jaggedly romantic landscape with softly reflecting light and serenely crackling humanity, where he brightens the darkness with a resplendent Glow, here she gives us shelter from the elements with a little Shade.