Album Review: High Places – High Places vs. Mankind




Despite putting all the right pieces together on their self-titled debut, High Places never quite made dance music. The hypnotic, wriggling rhythms, the complex, dense composition, the cool vocals all dashed together in a sweetly weird soup, one that dizzied in its unique feel. The kitchen-sink sampling came together in a Panda Bear/El Guincho (remember that guy?) kind of way, but the female vocals added an ethereal, story-book quality to the music. But, from the opening of High Places vs. Mankind, it’s clear there’s something very, very different.

The samples on album opener “The Longest Shadows” signal this difference pretty clearly: there are distinct drums and synth sounds. Nothing sounds unusual, which makes me worry that the charming found-sound atmosphere was more a choice of necessity, rather than an aesthetic one. The loop is pretty fun, though, so there are no complaints. However, when the vocals come in, things get a bit muddy. The new, cleaned up sound doesn’t quite mesh with the heavily reverb’ed, smoky vocals. “On Giving Up” follows, but with a slower tempo. This downshift makes a lot of sense. Vocalist Mary Pearson’s unaffected croon doesn’t match as well with the upbeat as it does echoing in this slow groove.

“She’s A Wild Horse” is…interesting. It’s hard to say how, exactly, the song works. The first three or so minutes of the song flow much like the first album did: the origin of the sounds aren’t quite clear, the vocals sing a simple, yet intriguing melody. The percussive beat is dense, but not lush, which doesn’t sound too different, but it may just be the difference between the two albums. The first album is full of interesting sounds, all combining into an enveloping sound. The new record’s lush, thick sound doesn’t quite wrap around you the same way, instead seeming more like a wall. And that’s how the song ends, the same simple, inviting melody compounded with a guitar-laden, arcing loop of dance.

“The Channon” follows and is a complete and utter change from what’s preceded it. It’s an unabashedly gorgeous, droney soundscape that appeals to the weirdo in me without ditching the entire “prettiness” thing. The sounds return to the realm of the unknown, white noise playing off of what may be trickling water, clinking bottles and Pearson talking. The neap and ebb of the piece is dramatically perfect, crescendo and decrescendo flittering in and out.

“Canada” is another slow burner in the vein of “On Giving Up”, but it’s not very memorable. “Constant Winter” is likable, if a bit heady, its mix of echo-drenched vocals sitting in the middle of a dubby, slinky bass line and clinkering percussion. Later, “Drift Slayer” is an outstanding companion piece to “Channon” relying on the tried and true rise and fall, both in volume and texture.
But, really, this is an album of mixed elements. The slower, more ambient pieces won me over, linking the essentially ambient nature of Pearson’s voice with Rob Barber’s eclectic sampling. Sure, it’s important to change and find new sounds, to expand into new arenas, but the more upbeat and dance-y the tunes feel, the less natural and connected they come across. I’ll go back to the drone pieces over and over, but the rest is hit or miss