Liz Harris, donning the moniker “Grouper,” has been making waves in modern ambient music for the past decade. Her sound is openly melancholy on record and unapologetically noisy in concert. Whether it be the drug-infused 2008 album “Dragging a Dead Dear Up a Hill” or her latest effort “Ruins,” Harris has stuck to a general formula of simple chords backed with indistinguishable vocals that hum and float along the backdrop of the song.
In mid 2013, one of Harris’ numerous side projects, Helen, released two short songs on a single entitled “Felt This Way / Dying All The Time”. It was later revealed that this group consisted of Harris, Jed Bindeman, Scott Simmons and an unknown vocalist aptly named Helen.
The two tracks released were loud and relentlessly lo-fi. Shoegaze-style guitar was employed in both songs with a sound that played homage to 90s group Black Tambourine. Both tracks would make a later appearance on “The Original Faces”.
Helen released their first official LP two years later. It was filled with 12 noisy, listless pop tracks. The album places its sound somewhere between My Bloody Valentine’s “Loveless” and Pinkshinyultrablast’s “Happy Songs for Happy Zombies.” At face value, the album appears to be an accessible shoegaze and noise pop release, but upon further examination, it reveals some interesting characteristics and charms.
The songs on this album evoke a variety of emotions. It is immediately apparent in the opener, “Ryder,” that the composition is a crumbled tape spinning in the background while an echoed bouncing guitar overlaps it.
Suddenly, all this stops and a heavily distorted electric guitar enters, eventually accompanied by the soft singing of Harris and the punching bass of Simmons. The listener is given a glimpse into a rather joyous and adolescent side of Harris.
More tracks follow suit employing a similar style. “Motorcycle” begins with hushed vocals and explodes into a noise pop track, flowing into the third cut “Covered in Shade.”
This track is a respite from the buzz of the record, and almost sounds like a 60s pop song ironically juxtaposed with Harris’ boggy, looming vox.
“Felt This Way” and “Dying All the Time” have been recreated for the new album, stripping back layers of reverb from their original forms and providing a slightly clearer sound. While impossible for listeners to understand the lyrics to any degree of accuracy, Harris’ vocals charm the audience.
These remade tracks prove to stand out from the bunch: they create rhythm that seems ready to dissipate at any time to complete blissful noise but manage to remain self-conscience and hold the songs together at the roots.
The message “The Original Faces” seems to send is that its pop structures are only meant to exist in short bursts. With seven of the tracks under three minutes, Helen allows the audience to peek into their desolate sound but shuts the door when it becomes too much.
It plays out well that Helen realized this pitfall, providing the listener a chance to dissolve themselves into a blissful atmosphere but not so much as to become tedious and downright boring.
Taken as a holistic piece, “The Original Faces” is disorienting. Despite the random diversions from the standard sound, Helen has crafted a solid debut and it is pleasant to know that Liz Harris is capable of breaking her ghostly music mold into something more joyous at times.