High Places

Pub date October 1, 2008
WriterTodd Lavoie
SectionMusicSectionMusic Features

New York — you never cease to surprise me. For all these years, I’ve been completely convinced that Brooklyn was a continuous swath of pavement, brownstones, and ironic T-shirts. Apparently there’s an altogether different, little-known ecosystem hiding in Hipster’s Paradise. Tucked in the darkest pocket of the borough sits a teeming rainforest, a sea of green in which rainbow-bedazzled birds shake their hot pink plumage while chattering monkeys swing through the lush canopy.

Or so Brooklyn electro-primitives High Places would have us believe. The duo — vocalist/multi-instrumentalist Mary Pearson and percussionist Rob Barber — embrace the notion of geography as a driving force in music, but it’s not their New York surroundings that inspire. Rather, they get their spark from environments far removed from the urban landscape — namely, jungles, of both the terrestrial and the mental variety. As the name would suggest, the pair concern themselves with elevated states — not only do they wish to take us climbing to the top of the tallest trees, but the journey also involves clearing one’s head with a luxuriant tangle of interwoven rhythms.

Vocals are drenched in reverb, guitars buzz as reconfigured insectoid samples, and keyboard melodies whir in unexpected patterns — yet it all feels wondrously organic. High Places have their antecedents — look to Brian Eno’s ambient "fourth world" explorations and the rainforest-dub of The Slits’ Return of the Giant Slits (CBS/Sony International, 1981) for touchstones — but ultimately, they arrive sounding like emissaries from a world yet to be surveyed.

High Places’ just-released self-titled Thrill Jockey debut — not counting the label’s summer-issued singles compilation 03/07–09/07feels tailor-made for swooping among the tippy-tops of the Amazon jungle, having meshed Pearson’s carefree, birdlike melodies with curious rhythmic tics, tribal polyrhythms, and the cicada-buzz of treated electronics. Many of the disc’s primeval shuffles, bumps, and thumps come from a full shelf of wood blocks, mixing bowls, and rattles. "The Tree with the Lights in It," for example, fashions an alluring rhythmic undercurrent from what sounds like sandpaper scratches and water sloshing in a bowl.

Elsewhere, the ricocheting electro pings and the clip-clop twitch of "A Field Guide" offers a sun-soaked tropical counterpart to Burial’s haunted dubstep, while "The Storm" tosses disembodied banjo into a slithery gamelan groove punctuated by echo-steeped synth chirps. Far away from her Brooklyn home, Pearson’s winsome flutter beckons from the tallest trees, where she makes the sweetest of observations: "Now my clothes are stained with pitch … it was worth it." Who could say no to such great heights?


Oct. 8, 9 p.m.

Bottom of the Hill

1233 17th St., SF