It’s a placid experience, listening to Brooklyn duo High Places. This self-titled album, their official debut after the stopgap singles compilation 03/07-09/07, is another collection of Mary Pearson and Rob Barber’s soporific, often achingly sweet, songs. For a band that could so easily be tagged with the hackneyed "folktronica" tag, it’s a delight to hear them squeeze some fresh juice out of the genre.
High Places is a wonderful example of a band that comes alive in a home studio, where willful indulgence is actively encouraged and a parade of mundane household objects spring into musical life. It’s easy to imagine Pearson and Barber gleefully skipping around their Brooklyn apartment, bashing wooden spoons against pots and pans and miking up cups, glasses, and broccoli. (Okay, maybe not broccoli.) The earthy, carefree results of these experiments are somewhat childlike compositions that rarely make it over the three-minute mark.
The musical influences at work here are a step back to the kind of gravely serenity the members of Matmos were capturing on their earliest records. Pearson’s saccharine vocals add an elegant grace to the High Places sound as they drift in and out of the mix, occasionally fading into nothingness. Often her vocals resemble those of Margaret Fielder from Laika, with whom High Places share more than a few joint musical fascinations.
Two of the first three tracks, “The Storm” and “The Tree with the Lights in It,” are the kind of wispy slices of cherubic electronica that have become the band’s trademark. The jittery rhythms encompass sounds that resemble treated steel drums, feet clumping through muddy water, and fizzy bursts of broken-down electronics. Barber’s sparse percussion and Pearson’s treacly vocals are the two constants throughout, occasionally lending a samey feel to the record. But it’s hard to resist their charms when they hit their stride, such as on standout track “Vision’s the First…,” which is the perfect distillation of the High Places sound.
Occasionally Pearson and Barber veer toward self-parody — there are even samples of animal noises on the instrumental ambient track “Papaya Year, ” lest we forget how “earthy” they really are. But these are minor diversions from the heavily controlled kitchen-sink electronics that are smattered all over the record.
What’s striking about such a layered, textural band is that Pearson and Barber are highly capable of being their own editors. The songs never sound cluttered despite the cavalcade of divergent sounds that make up the album, and Pearson’s vocals are adeptly deployed as just another instrument. They’ll need to rotate the High Places wheel if they want to sound fresh on their second record, but for now Pearson and Barber are providing the perfect pastoral soundtrack to the onrushing autumnal evenings.