Helen - The Original Faces

by Hayden Harman Rating:7 Release Date:2015-09-04

I do not think it would be an exaggeration to say that Liz Harris is one of my favorite current working musicians. From her work as Grouper to her numerous side-projects, Harris has delivered a consistent stream of singular and beautiful records, each one a world unto its own. When an album comes out with her name associated with it, I generally put it at the top of my list of music to listen to.

Helen, one of her latest side projects, is a dream pop band composed of Harris and her friends Scott Simmons and Jed Bindeman. The Original Faces is the band’s first full-length album, following the 7” debut single, "Felt This Way" b/w "Dying All the Time" released in 2013. Helen is a particularly interesting project in Harris’ discography because it is the most outwardly rock, whereas most of her other work leans heavily to the ambient/tape manipulation/minimalist singer-songwriter side of the musical spectrum.

Have you ever expected something to sound a certain way, but then be totally shocked to hear the real thing? That has essentially been my experience with The Original Faces. The album is comprised of what I’ll dub as mini mood-scapes. Each song is a little burst of energy that comes off more like an in-the-moment exercise than a polished attempt at songwriting, in real contrast to last year’s Ruins. You can see this desire to write instantaneous songs by noticing that the longest track on the album is just 4:09, which is the shortest "longest song" to appear on one of Harris' LPs.

The album opens with a 57-second, distorted acoustic guitar riff that is meant to deceive the listener until the electric guitar leads into the first explosion of sound with drums, bass and Harris’ ethereal vocals. The rest of the songs on the album follow this same arrangement: the drums and bass keep Harris’ distorted guitar and heavenly, reverb-laden vocal harmonies grounded. These are songs that do not sound like much in the current dream pop musical landscape, where most bands seem to be more inspired by the precision of Loveless, rather than the raw power of early Creation label singles or ‘60s garage rock.

The overall effect of this album is powerful, if not exactly immediate. The first time I heard the album, I honestly wasn’t affected by it as a whole. I thought tracks like “Grace” and “Allison” were excellent, but I was slightly underwhelmed by the rest of the songs. But I have a theory: If you leave this album playing in your car long enough, the songs will start weave their way into your subconscious – which is what Harris seems to accomplish with every album. Her muffled vocal harmonies swirl in your head and you start to feel the energy of the songs and hear their raw beauty. The Original Faces is yet another example of a master musician at work, but this time, it’s the sound of her making room for a little fun.

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