The most immediately arresting quality about High Places’ early EPs and subsequent Thrill Jockey debut was their lightness. Robert Barber’s playful and rhythmic sample beds provided a serene, yet joyful backdrop for Mary Pearson’s ethereal, reverb-laden vocals. Like Panda Bear or El Guincho, they created a delightfully exotic sound, but one ultimately inviting and warm. As fun as it is to play hide-and-seek within their diaphanous layers of sonic bliss, it’s just as tempting to curl up in a corner and soak it all in.
On their second album, High Places vs. Mankind, that effortless and airy quality is in much shorter supply. Where coastal breezes and hits of sunshine once prevailed, darkness and claustrophobia have since taken over. Not that High Places have gone goth-far from it. But the innocent and carefree nature of yore has faded significantly, and in its place is a more sober, haunting version of the group. Even the titles seem to signify a turn toward the band’s darker instincts: “The Longest Shadows,” “On Giving Up,” “Constant Winter.”
Not that High Places have gone goth or anything; the progression between the band’s self-titled album and Mankind is linear, but it is also a dramatic curve. Their songs have become denser, closer to actual rock songs than they had previously done. “The Longest Shadows” even kicks off with a guitar riff. Likewise, “Canada” is a billowing shoegazer ballad, and “Constant Winter” is a heady and distorted post-punk dub. And with “On Giving Up,” the most impressive track here, Pearson and Barber create their most infectious dance track to date. Of course, it’s also one of their most pessimistic and brooding, but their willingness to adapt and evolve has yielded something truly wonderful.
A few forgettable moments arise on High Places vs. Mankind, primarily in the form of instrumental tracks “The Channon” and “Drift Slayer,” but by and large, the album reveals an interesting and mostly successful transition for the duo. As intoxicating as their breezier, early efforts were, High Places vs. Mankind shows that Mary Pearson and Robert Barber are unafraid of change, a quality that suggests High Places will be creating captivating art for some time to come.
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.