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Helen, "The Original Faces"

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cover imageFor some reason, this seems to be one of the most weirdly overhyped albums of 2015 (at least in the underground/indie/experimental music spheres that I travel in), suggesting that: 1.) people absolutely cannot get enough Grouper, 2.) people are desperate to find a new album to be excited about, and 3.) widespread cultural amnesia has set in.  That is not a knock on the band though: Liz Harris’s garage/indie-pop trio is certainly enjoyable, but it is disorienting to see such a jangly, pretty, and breezily lightweight affair be so celebrated at a time when no one seems to clamoring to name-drop Tallulah Gosh, Opal, The Shop Assistants, or any similar late '80s/early '90s indie pop bands as major influences (though they totally should be).  In any case, The Original Faces certainly has its appeal–despite being inherently a modest event with very low-key aspirations, it is not every day that I get to hear Harris let down her guard and bash out fun indie-pop confections with her friends (imaginary and otherwise).

Kranky

This is Helen's debut album, though they previously surfaced with a 7" single in 2013 (co-released on Harris's own Yellow Electric imprint and bassist Scott Simmons' Meds label).  Both of the songs from that single reappear here, so those new to the party need not panic.  Rounding out the trio is Eternal Tapestry drummer Jed Bindeman, whom Liz amusingly began playing with several years in an attempted "thrash band" that ultimately became Helen (which is definitely not a thrash band).  Naturally, there is also a seemingly fictitious fourth member ("Helen," of course) credited with backing vocals.

The Original Faces can be divided into roughly two types of songs: fuzzy dream-pop and jangly C86/K Records/Flying Nun-style pop, though the two strains are united by Harris' characteristically reverb-swathed vocals and the rhythm section’s muscular and propulsive pulse.  While some of the dreamier/fuzzier pieces like "Dying All the Time" and "Grace" whip up quite a pedal-stomping guitar squall and lush vocal harmonies abound throughout the album , the bulk of Helen's songs adhere to a very simple "ok- we have a cool bass line, a melody, and some chords for the chorus…1..2..3..GO!" garage rock template.  Consequently, a lot of the songs are quite short and do not offer much in the way of development.  Instead, they offer rawness, spontaneity, and quite a few great hooks.

Unsurprisingly, the best songs are the ones with the best hooks (that is how pop music works, generally), though there is one inspired exception: the gorgeous opening piece "Ryder."  After an opening minute of tape-warped guitar strumming, "Ryder" unexpectedly explodes into something that sounds like the crescendo of a Shangri-Las' hit as produced by Flying Saucer Attack’s David Pearce: an indistinct blur of guitars, tape hiss, and lush, floating vocal harmonies over a roiling backdrop of urgent bass and plenty of crash cymbal.  Lamentably, it only last for about a minute, but it is absolutely wonderful while it lasts.   The album's other high-water mark is "Allison," yet another slice of dream-pop bliss.  While it does not stray from the rest of the album in any significant way, it boasts an achingly beautiful chorus, as Harris's descending vocal melody harmonizes into warmly melancholy heaven.  Some of the more sparse and jangly songs are quite good too, particularly "Right Outside" and the bouncy debut single (of sorts) "Covered in Shade."  I am always a sucker for tambourines.

Notably, The Original Faces is the rare album in which all of its flaws can also be perversely read as assets.  For example, the album is only about 30 minutes long and roughly half of its songs clock in around 2 minutes or less.  Those short songs are often the best ones though, as Helen's very limited palette greatly benefits from such a no-frills, "get in, kick ass, then get out" approach.  These 12 pieces may not be particularly substantial, but they compensate by rarely overstaying their welcome.   Another potential issue is that Harris's vocals are so soaked in reverb that they basically become just another instrument, completely obscuring the lyrics and undercutting her presence as a vocalist.  It sounds beautiful though, and Simmons and Bindeman do their best to make up for the blurry, barely there haziness of the vocals (the drums and bass are atypically loud and prominent for this style of music).  More importantly, those swooning, woozy vocals are what make this a distinctive project rather than a straight homage: Helen is basically just three cool people with great record collections having a fun time, but they still manage to make their influence-showing party their own thing (and they are every bit as good as most of the bands that they are celebrating).

For what they are: a fun side-project for three friends who are very busy with other bands and activities, Helen are surprisingly good.  Also, the informality of this project is hugely endearing (it took them 4 years to get together a half hour of music and their sole press photo was hurriedly taken with a dying camera after they convened for pizza on a rare occasion where all three members were in the same town at the same time).  Consequently, it is unwise to expect too much from Helen, but they are definitely an easy band to like (and they have excellent taste).  While I probably will not remember much about The Original Faces in a couple months, I will just as likely be endlessly revisiting a few of the highlights on playlists and mixtapes for years.

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Last Updated on Sunday, 06 September 2015 20:48  


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