On a succession of variously veiled and murky albums since 2005, Grouper, aka the Oregon-based artist Liz Harris, has made mystery one of her main instruments. Often her favored sound is intensely earthy and ethereal, layered and faded and delivered with a bit of aural messiness. For Ruins, which was apparently inspired by contemplative walks during a residency at a small Portual arts center, she pared down, recording on a 4-track with just an upright piano and a microphone to capture the enchanting plainness of her homespun voice.
“Made of Metal” opens with a scene-setting spell of bugs and birds chirping in the distance, before “Clearing” shifts abruptly to a confined space with just a woman alone with a piano in a room. The mood is almost unsettlingly intimate as Grouper moves through different moods, many of them dour or at least suggestively downcast. “Maybe you were right when you said I’ve never been in love,” she sings in “Clearing.” In “Call Across Rooms,” she mewls, “I have a present to give you when we finally figure it out,” making it clear that the figuring-out stage has not yet arrived (and probably, if you had to guess, won’t).
With a voice that seems to be more parts air than most, Grouper stays to the same elemental approach on Ruins, aside from a pair of instrumentals (“Labyrinth,” “Holofernes”) and a last track, “Made of Air,” that trades plain piano balladry for thicker, darker ambient electronics. None of those outliers are quite as good as the vocally enriched rest of the album, which casts Grouper herself as the voice of a sorrowful but resilient human core.