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Grouper’s Grid of Points Finds the Warmth in Pianos

Pianos figure into Liz Harris’ 14-year run as Grouper only occasionally in dribs and drabs. Songs like the tolling, toiling “Giving it to You,” from 2006’s Wide, were rare in the Oregon-based singer-songwriter’s music prior to 2014 landmark Ruins, where she shrugged off the muted folkie strum and extraterrestrial drone for which she’s long been feted. To claim that the ivories suit Harris is to court understatement. The combination of her evocative playing, murmured vocals, and a sprawling four-track ambience peppered with nature sounds felt then (and still feels) like a revelation, albeit a profoundly isolating one. Ruins exuded a cleansing solitude, a performer and instrument gelling perfectly.

No less spectral and not particularly more adorned, Grid of Points is the yang to Ruins’ yin. Pianos remain center stage, but here they’re milked for warmth and limned with hazy self-harmonies. Hallucinatory and (mostly) intelligible, these songs can sometimes come across as impressionistic dress rehearsals for a recital. Take opener “The Races,” wherein a chorus of semi-liturgical Harrises crescendo to an impossibly sweet, high peak; it’s over and done in 50 lovely seconds—appetizer length—but not before portending rain. Symbolically speaking, that’s an ominous beginning, yet it eases us into a welcoming, 22-minute long sonic realm.

Advance single “Parking Lot” drapes gossamer coos over halting, tremulous chords; it might be among the most iridescent Grouper songs ever recorded. Operating in a similar vein, “Blouse” is dominated by an aria-like vocal. Ghostly delicacy “Thanksgiving Song” is all quaver and flickering light, its breathy vocal whispers trailing one another over, around, and through the plangent, elusive mini-melodies of a song that’s perpetually on the verge of dissolving.

Since Harris didn’t release a lyric sheet for Grid of Points, inference becomes everything; this is a record where lyrics are often more slurred than sung. Two songs that edge nearer to the discernable—think of intriguing, half-developed Polaroids—are especially strong, if murky. The glacial, stately “Driving” surrenders ascending and descending scales, pointedly and deliberately pecked, to Harris’ memories of traveling as a child. Meanwhile closer “Breathing,” a drowsy, discordant lullaby that doubles as requiem, succumbs to gray trundling noise at its midway point.

Maybe that transition is mere subtextual underscoring; maybe it’s a strong hint that she hasn’t lost sight of the artist whom we once thought she was. Certainly, both can be true—and in its way, Grid of Points is as untidy as 2005’s Way Their Crept or 2008’s Dragging a Dead Deer Up a Hill. What’s different—and what’s key—is that in her ongoing embrace of the piano, Harris has made room in her artistry for a new sensation: the unmistakable glow of comfort.