Grouper: The Man Who Died In His Boat

The release of The Man Who Died In His Boat follows not too long after Liz Harris's last kranky opus, A|A, even if that double-CD release was a reissue of the Dream Loss and Alien Observer albums she issued on her own Yello Electric imprint in 2011. In actual fact, The Man Who Died In His Boat isn't brand new material either, as it's a collection of unreleased material the Portland-based songstress recorded alongside the Dragging a Dead Deer Up a Hill album in 2008 (apparently, the latter will be reissued on kranky on the same day as the 'new' one). But none of that matters much once the music plays, as The Man Who Died In His Boat is material that could conceivably have been released in any number of possible years, be it 2013, 1983, or even 1973. In contrast to the experimental soundscaping style of A|A, the new release emphasizes sparsely arranged songs for acoustic guitar and vocals, making it, comparatively, the much more accessible release of the two.

No doubt certain words have been used over and over in reviews of Harris's Grouper music, but it's almost impossible to listen to her material and not have the words haunting and mesmerizing come to mind. Throughout the album, her voice, multiplied into a fragile choir, wafts through the hiss-speckled air accompanied by acoustic guitar strums and, occasionally, fuzzier textures. An ethereal and ghostly quality shadows the songs that bolsters their gothic character.

One is constantly taken aback by the soul-stirring beauty of settings such as “Vital” and “Towers,” whose melodic sequences prove to be potent even when starkly arranged. A nod to the experimental side of the Grouper project emerges in “Vanishing Point” in its echoing piano treatments, but that's a rare occurrence on this largely vocal-based set. The words are often obscured due to Harris's vocal delivery and the instrumental surround but that lack of clarity does little to diminish the music's impact—if anything, it might enhance it for allowing it to retain its enigmatic nature. That as beautiful and haunting a song as “Living Room” can come from such simple means is amazing.

In keeping with the gothic and lonely tone of the music, the title alludes to an experience Harris had as a teen when the wreckage of a sailboat appeared on the shore of Agate Beach in Oregon. When she and her father went down to investigate, they found no body but only maps, coffee cups, and clothing—the boatman himself, as a newspaper later reported, having slipped into the water somehow and presumably drowned. Thankfully for us, this material, despite having been recorded five years ago, didn't suffer the same fate.

January 2013