I was lazing on the sofa listening to the anodyne plinks of Akira Kosemura's How My Heart Sings and I fell asleep, only to awaken minutes later in that strange fug that comes from dropping off abruptly in the day. This was exacerbated by the foggy haze coming from the speakers, ebbing me into consciousness, feint traces of guitar and spectral voice piercing the smoke. It met this in-between state perfectly and head-on, as though intentionally targeting this headspace. That's where my comparison with shoegaze was incorrect; the signifiers might be similar, but the conception is utterly different - sadder, more personal, resigned, yet more desperate. A nerdy and hackneyed analogy, it reminded me of the way Princess Leia appears to Luke early in Star Wars, a frightened, shimmering image suspended in space, "Help me ObiWan Kenobi, You're my only hope."
This is analogous to how Nick Richardson describes Grouper's latest 2 releases Alien Observer and Dream Loss in the June 2011 issue of The Wire, as being essentially about listening, about the nature of media and reception.
Recently, there has been a proliferation of music about listening. Not the ‘listening as hard as you can’ of the Wandelweiser posse, or the ‘listening to musicians listening as hard as they can to each other’ of group Improv, but individual listening experiences of people with lives, minds, emotions, homes. How often over the last year or so have you read, “It’s like Steely Dan heard on a sun-drenched beach in Hawaii from a hammock as a warm breeze kisses your cheek”? Or, “It’s like an old Stax record playing from someone else’s car in the carpark after prom during your first real smooch”? And it’s not just a writer’s conceit: often musicians will imagine the back story of a projected listener in considerable detail. Tom Krell, aka How To Dress Well, has described his song “Ready For The World” as “what it would be like to be a little boy and to have this downstairs neighbour who’d just gotten broken up with by his boyfriend and you can hear him crying… and you can hear R&B music coming through the floor?” This new music takes a pre-existing musical substrate, bends it, abrades it, dips it in echo, in such a way as to imply, via a strange conflation of subject and object, the psychological/emotional/geographical situation of an imaginary listener.
Richardson goes onto to say it's like listening to Judee Sill playing from the next room, but I'd keep the shoegaze analogy: Slowdive or Lush, the original obfuscation further washed out through obstacles and distance, the voice nothing but gentle, indecipherable murmurs. I also think of unfinished artworks, the grey noisewash like the block of granite in Michelangelo's unfinished sculpture, Liz Harris's the emerging subject. Or the vague hints of landscape appearing through the empty canvas in Cezanne's late works.
It was 'Moon Is Sharp' from AIA: Alien Observer that I awoke to and which made such an immediate impression:
But the following few tracks were equally involving. What's so interesting about Grouper is how each of these pieces is constructed in a similar way but end up sounding so different.
This track even taking its name from one of Shoegaze's most iconic moments:
This is music that does not work through headphones, but requires high volume, speakers, and the space of a room to achieve its aims.