BY Chris BiltonPublished Oct 31, 2014

Liz Harris wrote and recorded the majority of her latest Grouper album using a bare-bones setup of a piano, mic and portable four-track during a gallery residency on the southwest coast of Portugal. Consequently, Ruins sounds very much like it was recorded in remote isolation — a sort of ambient-folk field recording, complete with creaking floorboards and one stray microwave beep creeping into the makeshift studio atmosphere.

While the documentary vibe of the album is entirely engaging, immediately plunging the listener into a very real physical context, this is an album that requires a serious effort to unpack. Even after the first few listens, the songs feel far too fragmentary, partly due to how low Harris' whisper-soft voice sits in the mix, but also because the succession of meditations become increasingly inward-looking — almost guardedly so. It's as if Harris is inviting you to lean in as close as possible, only to ensure direct communication of the lyrical enigmas. Still, there's an unmistakable pull to the singsong sadness of "Clearing" and the stately piano line and vocal harmonies of "Holding," all of which belies a melodic sensibility that hints at pop ballad appeal.

Only the lengthy closer "Made of Air," while in line with Harris' more drone-based experimental output, seems somewhat unnecessary here. Even taken as an instrumental reflection of the sombre mood Harris explores throughout the rest of Ruins, it feels entirely unnecessary, especially for something that takes up nearly a third of the playing time. Otherwise, Grouper's latest is yet another exceptional offering that captures a truly unique voice in a uniquely natural setting.

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