The Original Faces makes for an interesting and mouth-watering course in an already distinguished career.
In a turn perhaps as surprising as Snoop Dogg releasing a reggae album, Liz Harris (aka Grouper) and several of her Portland friends have created one of the year’s most interesting and fun indie pop records. Harris, who really blew up when she put out The Man Who Died In His Boat a few years back, isn’t really known for being accommodating, easy listening. For non-fans, Harris’ recorded music can be, in some ways, inaccessible. She has the same kind of seriousness surrounding her that envelops ambient stars like Brian Eno or Aphex Twin. However, even Eno has his moments where he finds it all right to have some fun. But Helen, a trio comprised of Harris, Jed Bindeman (Eternal Tapestry) and Scott Simmons (Eat Skull), is an attempt to fuck around with shoegazey fuzzy guitar pop, something out of the norm for a Grouper release.
The ethereal ambiance at the beginnings of songs like “Motorcycle” and the title track are the only signs that the people involved were famous for other reasons than the pop music. The rest of it is just fuzzy banging, where one can lose themselves in the explosive, thunder skull-fuck of “Grace” or the ethereal and propulsive “Felt This Way.” There’s some really great song craft on this record, too, with “Right Outside” coming a bit too late as it’s perfect for a night drive during summer. The harmonies on nearly every track are exquisite and beautiful, and if they’d been the only component of the record, it would still be noteworthy. The steady, pounding drumming and slick guitar work only help to catalyze with the vocals and produce a reaction which feels just like summer sunshine. There’s an affable garage quality to this record that feels absolutely organic- and that’s probably because there was little pressure when Simmons and Bindeman and Harris were putting this thing together.
In truth, it’s the first Grouper-related record that a pop-oriented listener could really sink their teeth into, mainly because the record seems to meet them half-way. Harris is a super-talented artist, ambient or otherwise, and Simmons and Bindeman play their parts to perfection, and one can only hope that they continue to work together.. It’s an absolute bummer that there’s not more of this now, especially with how slight this record feels- a chunk of the tracks are under two minutes long, and feel more like crumpled-up pieces of sonic paper thrown at a wastebasket than meaningful contributions to the record. Then again, that’s part of Harris’ entire ethos, though normally writ long and large as opposed to the small plates we’re given here, and it’s given me pause to consider my own opinions of Harris’ previous work and where exactly they come from. The Original Faces makes for an interesting and mouth-watering course in an already distinguished career, and one only wishes it were a little bit heartier.