Though they know their way around a percussive groove, you would never confuse what High Places do with anything resembling dance music. The sound sketches of their early singles and self-titled debut were always too temporary, even for dance music; they were built from scratch with found sounds and brought to a climax in a brief amount of time.
But now here comes High Places vs. Mankind, their sophomore album, which could easily end up in the dance music section of your iTunes. All it took was slightly increased fidelity (at least in music; lead singer Mary Pearson still sounds as if she’s in the cave of oddities in The Little Mermaid) and a faster BPM and now High Places are all shimmery beats, sultry dance vocals, and undeniable force. It seems impossible that the same band that started out so ramshackle could deliver an album as splendid and tighly wound as this.
Vs. Mankind opens with “The Longest Shadows.” In the opening stanzas, it sounds as if it’s building toward the vaguely tropical squiggles that High Places tend to float by on, but then a glittery guitar line locks step with the drums and the song takes off around its totemic beat. The sinister death disco of “On Giving Up” picks up the mood next, hanging heavy like morning fog and moving forward like an irrepressible foe. Closer “When It Comes,” a song concerned with deciding if we’ve become to aberrant, is the best synthesis of the more placid High Places with their dance sensibilities. Sound sculptor Rob Barber crafts an army of stick drummers over a beat that sounds as if it were lifted from the soundtrack for the blue guys in Avatar; Pearson does her best jock-jams vocals while the song soars into the stratosphere.
High Places avoid completely giving themselves over to dance music during some parts of Vs. Mankind, namely the filler sound workouts that happen near the middle of the album (and some searing drone pieces, like “Canada”). It’s like it’d be even too much for High Places if they suddenly became serious competitors with Hot Chip and the like. But the members of High Places more than punch their weight class here, moving into a more structured sound with little effort and fantastic results. It’s less like High Places vs. Mankind and more like High Places vs. Their Old Sound.