Liz Harris lets the sunshine in on Helen’s The Original Faces
The dusty tape clears the air. It’s like that long opening breath before a monologue. It’s strapping on a guitar and staring at the pedal board at your feet. It’s those segue weeks between seasons. The scratchy ambience of tape hiss shifts into wobbly guitar sounds, building to a crescendo, signifying the arrival of Helen. It was as if in order to properly commence, the group has to first break down and rebuild.
For us here in Australia, Helen’s debut comes as winter finally starts to evanesce. There have already been a handful of decent outdoor days. Days you could justify skipping class and wandering around with headphones on because at least you are outside. I tested The Original Faces on one of those days, moving out into the world from my indoor cave, squinting in the warm sun but still wearing jeans and a jacket.
Helen’s singer and guitarist Liz Harris is known for her gloomy and experimental songwriting under the Grouper pseudonym. Her songs are quiet and angry, usually managing to convey unbelievably vast amounts of emotion despite the intangibility of her lyrics. She is a quiet shoegaze hero. Her instruments reverberate, echo and stretch out through space, like all the gazers do, but her playing is so unique that you immediately know it’s her when you hear it. Other shoegazers wouldn’t play with as much ugliness and dissonance as Harris does on tracks like “Violet” and “Motorcycle”. These guitars are angry and untamed, weeping, bruised and fighting.
Though fans will immediately recognize this as a Liz Harris release, most will struck by how unashamedly “pop” some of these Helen tracks are. “Covered in Shade” and “Grace” in particular are so breezy and upbeat that they could be mistaken for early Best Coast numbers, except maybe if Bethany Cosentino hated herself and was drowsy on Codeine.
The focus is predominantly on the hooks. Though you’ll sometimes need to squint your ears to hear them, they are there, shrouded in a veil of tape hiss, reverb and noise. Under this delirious wall of sound Harris is half-smiling, her eyes closed, singing some of her friendliest and catchiest songs to date.
It’s probably one of the best 90s throwback records I’ve heard all year. Like if Yo La Tengo, Black Tambourine and Lisa Germano got all fucked up and wild together, thrown into a mixing pot with a dirty big dose of melancholy. But of course, Harris’ presence makes this release uniquely hers.
The best track on the record is without question “Dying All the Time”. It is probably the loudest and jammiest of the entire record. Jed Bindeman and Scott Simons pummel at their instruments like maniacs while Harris drowsily wails, “I’m dying all the time” over the sludge of reverb and distortion. Though the song moves in a straight line, there are these bleak crescendos, rises and falls that seem to just keep coming and coming. I’m reminded of a bad acid trip, or Deerhunter in full-on wig-out mode. The massive soundscapes and motoric pulse of this track is reminiscent of the closing minutes of bangers like “Desire Lines”, “Nothing Ever Happened” or “Monomania”.
However, the textures throughout The Original Faces are remarkably thinner than most of Harris’ other projects. Bindeman and Simons provide the perfect backing track for Harris to meander over and the trio’s frenzied and haphazard playing compliment each other perfectly.
This is a pop record for outsiders, or an experimental record for pop purists. Though The Original Faces is not as emotionally enriching or as rewarding as much of Harris’ other works, this Helen release is a wonderful addition to her chronology and likely the only Grouper album that’s playable in the warmer months. Shoegaze fans will adore this.