The tools Liz Harris uses to make music as Grouper tend to be pretty basic: piano, guitar, synths, drones, hiss, and lots of reverb. If you've been following along with the twists and turns of noisy ambient music these last few years, this collection of elements may sound familiar, possibly bordering on cliché. But it's all in how you fit the pieces together. Despite sharing characteristics with a lot of other current music, Harris' has a distinctive sound that she pretty much owns. These short LPs, released at the same time and that share an overall aesthetic, sound beamed in from another realm, and they also sound like they could have come from no one else.
Part of the distinctiveness can be traced to Harris' voice, which floats above the music and can sound delicate and shrouded and mist and can also evince an approachable earthiness. Particularly on Alien Observer, she layers her voice in a way that occasionally brings to mind Julianna Barwick, but Harris sounds comparatively distant and less immersive. Her voice haunts these songs instead of leading them; it's a presence and not a personality, and the voice and instruments are in balance, serving each other without any one element becoming more prominent.
The other aspect that sets Grouper apart is an approach to sound that feels somehow both cruder and more sophisticated than the majority of the lo-fi crop. It's crude in the sense that it seems to hearken back to the dark, home-recorded songs of an earlier era. David Pearce's music as Flying Saucer Attack, recorded mostly during the 1990s, was often referred to as "rural psychedelia," and that description would fit this pair of records. This music feels both spacey and expansive and also oddly intimate and grounded, the work of someone who has mastered her tools and knows how to get the most out of them. The sophistication comes from the care in presentation. This music doesn't sound like it was built from mistakes or thrown together, it seems precisely ordered and arranged even while it's often muffled and warbly and distorted. Every sound exists for a reason.
Alien Observer is the more accessible of the two discs, and also has a slightly better arc. The opening "Moon Is Sharp" begins one of those impossibly beautiful vocal drones that just tears out your insides, as Harris begins in shapeless ethereality and gradually finds her way to an unadorned but breathtaking melody. The title track does away with the drone and puts Harris' vocal over a quivering keyboard line. On "Vapor Trails" and "She Loves Me That Way" the record turns a few shades darker, but a twinkling music box melody that opens "Mary, on the Wall (Second Heart Tone)" feels like awakening from an uneasy sleep, groggy and halfway hallucinating as you re-enter the world. The closing "Come Softly (For Daniel D)" feels like a proper conclusion, as Harris' naked voice over a skeletal keyboard figure gradually disappear over the horizon.