High Places — Field Notes from Somewhere Else

From the sound of it, High Places are providing the soundtrack to the travelogue for an imaginary country. It's an island country perhaps, one located in the waters somewhere many miles off the coast of Malaysia -- a land of open skies and fields grown tall with lemongrass, and of dense and verdant canopies teeming with little scurrying things, of evenings illuminated by fireflies the size of cellphones, and where the forest-dwelling natives spend their afternoons lazing about and eating rambutan sherbert while building a musical cargo cult around Aphex Twin's "Donkey Rhubarb." Maybe it's called or Walamalau or something like that. Whatever the case, the message from afar arrives reading: Everything is so otherly, we wish you were here.

But in fact, High Places is the Brooklynite duo of Mary Pearson and Rob Barber. With this, their newly released CD on Thrill Jockey, the pair follow up on anticipation generated by their previous singles and opening appearances for the likes of No Age and Deerhunter with a proper full-length debut.

Barber and Pearson are clearly taken with the traditional music of faraway places, particularly that of Indonesia and Laos. They both play stringed instruments and other things, as well as every object that can be put to percussive purposes -- mainly bells, anything that sounds like a marimba, and numerous found objects that make a good noise when struck the right way. What results are songs filled with sonorous clanking and clattering of the gamelan sort; creating heady musical vistas while Pearson's dreamy vocals float atop, as if narrating the excursion from high above the treetops.

In the end, it's akin to a certain species of "folktronica" that made the rounds a few years back, except this time exoticized via some Nonesuch Explorer Audio Companion to Southeast Asia; stitched together with the sort of digital stutter and flutter that's long been the hallmark of crafty laptop productions.

High Places have hit upon a striking formula; one that can, on any given track, sweep the listener off into some other world that's only sort-of part of this world. Pleasant and captivating? Yes, very much so, if only for a while. A few songs into the album's short span, a pervasive sense of same-iness sets in -- blurring together in a numbing haze with each song limited to a limited range of tempo, mood, density, and ultimately inhabiting the same compacted sonic space. Which is unfortunate and a bit baffling, considering that the needed variance could easily be found in the music (both Asiatic and electronic) that inspired High Places to begin with. In the end, it's a few clicks past mere musical tourism, but one can't help but feel that more field research is in order.

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