Light into darkness

Pub date March 16, 2010

MUSIC High Places’ upcoming release High Places vs. Mankind (Thrill Jockey) opens with the slow-tempered "The Longest Shadow." The chorus offers a supine first-person perspective of the sun’s effect on the earth at dusk. The first verse focuses on letting love in, but by the second verse Mary Pearson’s lyrics narrate the end of a relationship, which includes that universal nostalgia (a.k.a. confusion) of not really knowing why a relationship terminates, and includes the ritual stages of longing, wondering, and finally, remembering.

High Places’ music is designed to be lost in; it infiltrates and instigates meditation, but it also manages to keep the listener constantly moving. That’s how good the beat is as it weaves in and out of Pearson’s vocals. When the second track "On Giving Up" begins, it’s hard to determine if Pearson’s extending the last poem, and is talking about the actual breakup night, or if she’s talking about quitting cigarettes, booze, or some addiction, as she sings: "It’s all because I feel everything that’s gone. It’s all gone. Well, tonight is going to be the night." But that ambivalence is part of the charm, allowing the listener to relate and reflect.

Pearson and Rob Barber are High Places. The pair explored the natural world on the 2008 compilation 03/07-09/07, and on their self-titled album from the same year (both on Thrill Jockey). But on High Places vs. Mankind, there is a clear shift toward "humanity," as Pearson defines it, "for lack of a better word."

Weather — the hot, the cold — as well as spatial relationships, and differences, have a large impact on how we as humans live and operate. The band moved from New York to Los Angeles roughly a year ago. "We really had no good reason to, other than the weather," Barber says when I ask him over the phone why they decided to move. L.A. literally exists because it averages 320 sunny days a year, which made it the ideal location to film, and thus Hollywood emerged. After settling down in L.A. and taking a pause from touring, the duo suddenly had a great deal more space and time. They began writing and recording. But curiously, the warmth, space, and time led to icier sounds and darker themes in its new recording.

Pearson explains that High Places’ music made in New York "is based on escapism and trying to create our ideal environment. But because it’s so beautiful in L.A. all the time, we don’t need to talk about that stuff quite as much." This allowed the band to explore new ideas.

On High Places vs. Mankind, the blissed-out melodies and undeniable dance rhythms along with the complex layering and tidbits of dub are still apparent. But there is more: guitars sounding like guitars, unlike before, when they could’ve been mistaken for steel drums or sitars. And Pearson’s vocals are less affected, allowing them to be vividly heard.

The back of High Places’ self-titled release reads: "recorded at home by High Places." In New York, the band/best friends lived together. "I think that made us write every note together," says Pearson. In L.A., where they no longer share an apartment, they’ve taken a different approach. The pair discovered that they desired different types of workspaces. "I would work at home, and she would work in an outside studio," Barber explains. "We’d meet up and smash it all together. We’d go back and forth with it, responding to each other like call-and-response."

The change in sound is cooler at times, but it is also more direct in its message. "It was much more based on human relationships, and life and death," says Pearson. The album is dark and light at the same time — tragic contemplations are matched with stretched-out synths, as well as those bouncing beats and rhythmic hooks High Places has utilized in the past to keep things airy. The music makes you pause, get lost, question your own mortality, think about your last heartache, and when the daze is over, you feel one step closer to the infinite.

High Places’ forthcoming show will add one more twinge in its exploration of human relationships by including Pearson’s sister Laura on vocals for the first time, and she’ll continue on most of the U.S. tour. Pearson explains that she and her sister have been singing together informally all their lives — "Karaoke," interrupts Barber — and that HP has wanted to include her on tour for a long time now. *


with Mi Ami and Protect Me

Wed/24, 8 p.m., $10/$12

Rickshaw Stop

155 Fell St., SF