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Shade Amanda Farah , November 4th, 2021 08:35

Liz 'Grouper' Harris digs through her archive for an album of intimate, stripped-back treats spanning her decade-and-a-half long career

It’s striking to think that Liz Harris had any music she was holding back. Her latest album, Shade, is made up of songs spanning her career and different sessions, providing evidence that, as prolific as Harris has been — this is her twelfth album in fifteen years — there was still something left in the vaults.

Shade stands in stark relief from recent Grouper output first and foremost for its production qualities. Those familiar with older Grouper recordings will recognise the swampy reverb of ‘Followed the ocean’ or ‘Disordered minds’ that characterised her early work but have been absent in later years. There is an overall lo-fi aesthetic to all of the recordings which helps to tie the newer and older songs together cohesively. Nothing sounds out of place, nothing sounds too conspicuously clean.

It’s also striking that the guitar is the prominent — really, only — instrument used on Shade. This lends a demo track feeling to songs with the most barebones production, a trait underscored by the lulling, plodding pace of ‘Ode to blue’ and halting approach of ‘The way her hair falls’, not to mention the false start she kept in the middle of the latter song. And as someone who normally layers her vocals so artfully, that more of the seams in this technique are visible on songs such as ‘Pale Interior’ emphasises that sense of songs having been in early stages, but also lends them a different, fractured emotional quality.

Harris’s vocals throughout Shade are thus the most telling sign of her different recording approaches. While opening track ‘Followed the ocean’ has the most extreme distortion on the album (including on her voice), Harris made a regular tactic of burying her vocals. This is taken to the extent that, on ‘Pale interior’ and ‘Basement Mix’, it feels like she’s managed to make her voice itself the backing track to the guitar’s melody. In that sense, album closer ‘Kelso (Blue Sky)’ is compelling for its clarity and lack of surface noise. And as many of her lyrics don’t come through so clearly, the way she openly grapples with loss on ‘Kelso’ is especially moving.

Shade reviews different ways Grouper has approached her work over the years, but is also a unique look at the style that has emerged as a result, even if some of the stops along the way are less polished. If Grouper is normally minimalist in her recordings and performances, Shade is like having Harris perform in your living room: it isn’t always flawless, but it is absolutely special.