Hailing from Brooklyn (quite the bed of musical activity these days), the duo High Places made a name for themselves two years ago with the release of their self-titled debut, exhibiting an offbeat sound rich with psychedelia and unique instrumentation. Between Rob Barber's mastery of manipulating sounds into loops and Mary Pearson's sweet and sincere yet almost haunting vocals, High Places had a distinctive and unique sound, despite the ubiquitous rise of bands experimenting with indie and psychedelia when they formed the duo back in 2006. On their sophomore effort, High Places Vs. Mankind, they've switched up their sound a bit, and for better or for worse, the alterations have a number of impacts on the album.
While the spacey sound and atmosphere of the debut is largely in tact, High Places has implemented a few organic elements, namely guitars and more solid beats. Because of this, as well as slightly more direct song structures, the diverse genres the duo embrace seem sharpened and more apparent. The Longest Shadows and On Giving Up both carry an almost disco quality, and are easily the most accessible things the band has written yet, particularly the oddly danceable latter. Pearson's echo plastered vocals still give her an almost ghostly appeal, and there's a peculiar spookiness to when she sings "Tonight is going to be the night." Canada almost comes across as an eastern take on shoegaze, sounding like the Jesus and Mary Chain with tablas and a beautiful, warped synth toward the end. The Most Beautiful Name offers a fantastic blend of dub and psychedelia, which practically shimmers while keeping a subtle swing to it, and Pearson's vocals float over wonderfully.
There are times when this change in approach works to the duo's detriment, however. On a Hill in a Bed on a Road in a House veers a bit too close to traditional indie pop songwriting, and the track centers around a fairly weak vocal pattern that gets a bit irritating after a while. The instrumentation doesn't always fare well either. The guitar in Constant Winter adds little more than a simple, forgettable melody, and it seems to substitute for any real substance to the atmospherics. Three uneventful minutes pass before the drums kick in, which do little to spice up the song, and it kind of fizzles out. There's also the case of some more ambient tracks which lack the texture of High Places' debut. Drift Slayer, while pretty, doesn't feel intended to be more than a two minute long interlude (of which there are several on the self titled). It's dragged on for twice that length however, and goes absolutely nowhere.
High Places second album is a mixed bag of sorts. The slight revamping they've given their sounds pays off beautifully in some places by underlining genre blends and broadening the instrumental range, but it seems that their knack for toying with general ambiance has suffered a bit in exchange. The stronger songs are good enough to carry the disappointing ones however, and with as creative as Barber and Pearson have shown themselves to be, it's quite conceivable that they'll come into their own sooner than later.