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Mary Lattimore - Hundreds of Days Music Album Reviews

Frog Eyes - Violet Psalms Music Album Reviews
The harp innovator experiments with an arsenal of new instruments—including her voice—on an album of ambient music as complex and meditative as the work of Pauline Oliveros.

There’s a striking photograph of Mary Lattimore that tells you more than any sentence could about the vibe of her music. It’s a dusty, black-and-white image, in the style of Walker Evans, that shows Lattimore holding her enormous, 47-string Lyon & Healy harp in the middle of an arid-looking plain. Behind her there is dirt, bushland, and, in the distance, a mountain range. The harp is best known as a devotional instrument, its connotations of holiness and delicacy etched into the collective imagination by wedding processions and artists’ renderings of Christian paradise. But Lattimore doesn’t seem interested in the heavens. Her harp sounds crunchier, stranger, and more rooted to the earth.

On her first two solo albums, At the Dam and Collected Pieces, she devised a new way to experience the harp. Permeated by memory and endowed with a sense of place, Lattimore’s wordless songs managed to evoke the Hoover Dam, Wawa convenience stores on the Jersey Shore, and her family’s dearly departed dog. Her secret weapon was a Line 6 looping pedal, which allowed her to create deep sounds that imparted these instrumentals with a dizzying emotionality. On her new album, Hundreds of Days, Lattimore looks beyond the harp and proves she’s capable of composing ambient music that is every bit as complex and meditative as the work of Pauline Oliveros and Harold Budd.

The record began its life in a redwood barn on a hill overlooking the Golden Gate Bridge. During a two-month residency at the Headlands Center for the Arts in Marin, California, Lattimore experimented with electric guitar, piano, theremin, a semi-modular synthesizer, and, most importantly, her voice. By adding these new sounds to her trusty harp and looping pedals, she’s expanded the possibilities of her music. The six songs on Hundreds of Days are the best she’s recorded so far.

The 12-minute opener, “It Feels Like Floating,” is a showcase for the progress she’s made. If Lattimore’s earlier songs were redolent of places she’d visited, this track is proof that she has the skill to build new landscapes with her instruments. Inhabiting the song is like being placed in some alien terrarium: She conjures the organic buzzes and clicks of everyday life with the reverb bouncing off her harp strings, but gaseous synthesizer hiss and a groaning theremin mutate that naturalism into something freakier. That wet and weird noise surrounds her beatific harp melody and peaceful hums and sighs. The combined effect of all these sounds is pastoral, spacey, and even a bit spiritual.

“It Feels Like Floating” sets the scene for the album’s best track, “Never Saw Him Again,” which foregrounds Lattimore’s fluttering, wordless singing as soupy synthesizer noise gives the composition depth and weight. Hardly the main attraction, her harp notes just float around in amniotic sound. At first, the song recalls the murky calm of Oval. But, halfway through, it starts to skip and distort, as if it were made of corroded magnetic tape. Then the tape gets stuck on fast-forward, catching the harp in its slipstream until Lattimore is plucking more quickly than any human could possibly play. For what is ostensibly an ambient song, “Never Saw Him Again” feels pretty thrilling.

Lattimore shows a darker side of the harp on “Baltic Birch,” mixing melancholic strumming with dramatic electric guitar flourishes. She even reaches for uncharacteristically heavenly, classical harp heights on the soothing “Hello From the Edge of the Earth.” What makes Hundreds of Days so special, though, is how often it hits ambient music’s sweetest spot—a place where the world slows down and the performer’s free-floating noise makes you appreciate everything around it.

Listening to the album’s closing track, “On the Day You Saw the Dead Whale,” while jogging in the park one morning, the piano chords and harp notes activated the sounds of the forest around me. The thump in my chest, the whistle of the wind blowing through the leaves, and my footfalls on asphalt all danced around her notes. In that moment, it was impossible to tell where Lattimore’s song ended and the world began.

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