We are greeted by what sounds like a heavily synthesized beat, but right away there are clues that things are not what they may seem. There’s something spacious about the sound itself, even as the clipped precision of the beat speaks of serious computer manipulation. And then there’s the odd fact that the beat unfolds for all of seven seconds before the vocals start. Wow—a technopop/electronica song without a mindless, overlong introduction. Bonus points to High Places, a duo which is clearly not in it just to twiddle knobs or to woo the dance crowd.
And then there are the words themselves: “The brackish water/Swirling around/In a basin I left in the yard”—a stark, organic image, spoke-sung by Mary Pearson with, now, a new element in the mix: a chime-like keyboard tracing a C minor octave in a repeating pattern. Keep your ear on that, as it becomes the backbone of multi-instrumentalist Rob Barber’s jittery, multifaceted soundscape, which takes shape before our ears between 0:32 and 0:48 as new elements are layered in. Pearson doesn’t begin fully singing until 1:20 (and a lovely, careful voice she has, too), at which point she settles mostly on a motif that echoes the melody given us by the C minor synthesizer. Nothing about this song is very song-like in any pop sort of way, but likewise does it rise above typical club fodder in the sculpted precision of its sound and the dreamy introspection of Pearson’s vocals. Barber’s sounds often originate in organic instruments (Pearson has a degree in bassoon performance, of all things), and if that isn’t necessarily clear to the casual listener what is noticeable, and notable, is the striking texture he creates—a propulsive yet elusive setting that sounds on the one hand like little more than a beat and yet on the other hand feels fully like music. In what amounts to a bit of aural sleight of hand, the song makes do with only two chords, as far as I can detect. I for one don’t even miss a third.
High Places was founded in Brooklyn in 2006, but has since relocated to Los Angeles. “Year Off” is from the album Original Colors, the band’s third, set for release in October on Thrill Jockey Records. MP3 via Pitchfork. A duo with a definite visual flair, the band has a blog featuring photographs from their travels, which is well worth a visit. They were previously featured on Fingertips in January 2010.