Review: Helen – The Original Faces


Liz Harris has proved herself an able collaborator whilst gaining well-earnt notoriety for the tape-sibilant, pedal-drenched sound of Grouper; a soft alchemy of exquisite, liminal repose that’s as likely to melt hearts as it is to entrance. Whereas previous collaborations have maintained a similarly sorrowful and vaporous feel – especially Mirroring, a folkloric drone project with Jesy Fortino (aka Tiny Vipers) and Raum, a work of sunken ambience with Jefre Cantu Ledesma – the driving constitution here is one of mellifluent, churning fuzz. 

Yet, even with the certainty of such distorted bliss, the opening is almost a deception; awry acoustic strums trundle along like a drunken form of downer folk until the tape changes and guitar noise saws through, ceaselessly throttling like a second hand engine. It coheres with the ‘thrash band’ mentality that the members of the project initially outlined in first release press material, in as much as it introduces the live and unfiltered vigour that defines much of the LP. But once Harris adds diaphanous harmonies, those which float gracefully free of enunciation, it positions the sound in a sort of DIY noise pop vacuum populated by the likes of Black Tambourine and The Shop Assistants, had they entertained some more subtly erratic proclivities. These are manifested in singular transitions between tracks, ranging from slow closure (especially the distant, through-a-wall burnout of ‘Felt This Way’) to smooth segues (as on ‘Ryder’ as it moves into ‘Motorcycle’). It contributes to a sense of refuted elaboration as things progress and, along with the hi-hat pile-ups and dominant, lilting anchorage of bass that defines much of the tracks themselves, reveals an album seemingly born out of practice-room-ease. It’s very hard not to be charmed by its swift, offhand naturalism. It’s almost as if the fact that it was recorded and released was only a formality. 

But that’s not to say the production is purposefully inferior or lazy, there’s plenty of nuance and sophistication here. Often the vocals have a dense but clear echo, as if thoroughly aired out in a church, its resonances extending to every marble crevice. ‘Pass Me By’ is an especially beatific instance of this, with the restrained radiance of Harris’ voice multiplied by an unidentified backing voice (sparingly named as ‘Helen’ in the accompanying notes) It’s startling how well these voices coalesce and diverge, snaking around each other in ascending sublimity. ‘Right Outside’ foregrounds the vocals to a similar extent, but situates them in a discreet VU torch song, all stripped-to-the-bone percussion, gritty jangle and world-weary ruefulness (though strangely redemptive in its reflective tone) 

Even with this highpoint, there may still be detraction, rooted in accusations of tweeness and homogeneity. But there’s something impervious at work that prevents this from ever veering into excessively precious territory. Even with the cradling quality of the vocals, and the shambling quality of say, ‘Covered in Shade’, there’s enough gnarled constancy to provide ample contrast to sweeter moments. ‘Grace’ and ‘Violet’ are such instances, but along with the breathy vocal fragility on display there’s a potent blaze writhing underfoot; guitars which crackle with their own destructive energy. Functioning in proximity like this, the delicacy takes on a rougher impact, and the vehement but contained guitar-bristle that frequently arises begins to speak more of perversely robust pleasure. Like opposites in solidarity, this is the kind of juxtaposition that My Bloody Valentine made into an art form. 

Yet even with these considerations, pure and simple, this is pop music uncompromised by the usual corruptions, and informed by a very particular sonic framework. There are fingerprints of Harris’ other work all over this, but they’re an imprint which competes with fervent abrasion and winsome pop gestures. By the time the concluding glow and solace of ‘City Breathing’ and the title track are reached, it’s abundantly clear that this is a trio in equanimity, together wrestling racket into pop, but simultaneously coarsening pop into moving bouts of discord. 

The Original Faces is out on 4th September via Kranky.