Back in 2014, local folk duo Tall Heights described themselves to us as “canyon.” Given their ability to build a sound much larger than you’d expect from just a guitar, cello, and vocal harmonies, the grandeur of “canyon” was fitting. Their acoustic string instruments anchored the music in the natural sounds of folk, while their echoing harmonies added intricate layering.

With 2016’s Neptune, Tall Heights has shipped off their brand of folk into space, and has sent it back affected with electronic transmissions–a clear departure from the softer, warmer Rafters. Last year, Tall Heights released their Holding On, Holding Out EP, the first indication that Tim Harrington and Paul Wright intended to experiment with the mix of acoustic and electronic.

The transformation mirrors that of many artists of today; laser-like synths zip through soul sweetheart Corinne Bailey Rae’s most recent release, and folk’s favorite falsetto Bon Iver has returned with flickering blips and loops born out of a place far from the Wisconsin cabin where For Emma, Forever Ago was recorded. Tall Heights have already proven they can create a grandiose sound with very little, so a foray into what today’s technology has to offer–an infinite expansion of sound–in order to develop their music makes sense.

“River Wider” best encapsulates this shift; the track begins with a whirring, mimicking a cassette tape being rewound to the sounds of their past. Sweeping strokes of the cello take listeners back to the duo’s days of busking on cobblestone streets of Faneuil Hall. Eventually, the strings fade out, replaced by synths.

At times, the new direction feels forced. The rhythms, once beat out onto the bodies of the pair’s cello and guitar, are now synthetic productions–an abrasive contrast to the more natural vocal and cello sounds. “Spirit Cold” is punctuated with a beat that feels flat and lacks the depth of the accompanying harmonies, and the harsh snaps of the drum pads of “Backwards and Forwards” jolt the listener out of the trance set by the strong cello part and “oohs” of the previous track, “Horse to Water.”

But, more often than not, it works. Tall Heights are still speaking the language of folk–their lyrics describe buffalo herds, sweet cellar cider, smells of turpentine, and ocean currents–but now, the high-reaching falsetto voices are supported and enhanced by additional backup: keys, electric guitars, and some MIDI programming. The twinkling of electronic sounds on “Growing” compliment the vocals, lifting the harmonies as they float away, and the drumming drives “The Runaway” in a way that would have been impossible with the pure duo setup. Those familiar with Fleet Foxes will hear similar layering on “No Man Alive,” a track that slowly builds into what could have been worked into a club banger had Avicci done a touch of remixing a lá “Wake Me Up” and added in a drop (or five).

Though Neptune shares the tracks “Two Blue Eyes” and “Spirit Cold” with earlier EP Holding On, Holding Out, Tall Heights show they’ve grown since then; the tracks have all been reintroduced with improved production. With Neptune, Tall Heights present their new sound as a more polished and confident one. Though it may not be stamped with the same earnest charm as earlier works, their majestic brand of “canyon” remains.

Album Review: Neptune by Tall Heights
PROS
  • Successfully explored a new direction
  • Improved versions of songs from earlier EP
CONS
  • Artificial-sounding drumming sometimes feels abrasive
  • At times, some far-reaching falsetto vocals
8.6Overall Score

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