Helen – The Original Faces
Another autumn arrives (almost) and so comes another album from Liz Harris. Instead of another Grouper album, however, Ms. Harris has put together a dream-pop outfit called Helen that approximates the sounds of the early Nineties, when wobbly tape noises, ultra-lo-fi recording, and thick fogs of reverb were par for the course. A lot of that is, of course, stuff that Liz Harris uses seemingly every day, but the difference here is obvious. Grouper is a project that approximates folk, except drowned in dread and isolated tape artifacts. Helen is a pop group at its core, albeit one that sounds as though it was recorded live in an intimate club in the late 1980s and then left out in the rain for the past 25 years. A track like “Felt This Way” sounds like what would happen if your house caught fire and your copies of Darklands and Heaven Or Las Vegas melted into each other but were still listenable. These are, despite all of their accouterments, skeletal songs; the bass pokes through the holes in the sonics in a way that will make any aficionado of raw garage-recorded rock ‘n’ roll sit up and clap. The gain used on the guitar amps is something rather unusual for Harris, but the way that the distortion is scattered to the winds and made to suffuse the whole song – as on “Pass Me By” – is quite warm and familiar. Where the album really comes together is on “Dying All The Time”, where Harris and Co. up the racket to a near-punk fury by way of a drum line that carries all of the diffused distortion and thumping bass to an entirely different world.
If you miss noisy dream pop from the days when you were still buying it on cassette, do yourself a favour and track down a cassette copy of The Original Faces.
Like the Cocteau Twins before her, Liz Harris deals in an abstractly intimate type of songcraft that transcends lyrical clarity; much of the time, she comes across as an artist intent on sketching out melodies and creating the ghosts of folky pop songs. This vocal ambiguity pairs with the mournful atmosphere and the organic noise instrumentation to evoke emotions that you can’t even really name. Is it existential sadness? The acceptance of inevitability? Something as mundane as merely missing another human being? I strongly suspect that the effect will be different for each listener, making this an album that you can take home and make your own, an album whose intimacy is intensely personal and achingly beautiful. It was written at the same time as 2008’s Dragging A Dead Deer Up A Hill and it makes a more than worthy companion album to that modern classic. They both outline a contemporary redefinition of the possibilities inherent within ambient songcraft, and allow the listener to pour themselves into the emotional mould that Harris presents and holds tantalizingly just out of reach. The Man Who Died In His Boat is ostensibly a “folk” album, but it far outstrips the limitations that the genre often imposes on artists. By welding elements of experimental noise and studio effect play with downtempo acoustic chording, Harris crafts something more along the lines of a discourse of elemental dread, loss, and recovery.
FINAL MARK: A
[Obligatory suggestion to try my book before you buy my book at http://www.trevorjameszaple.com ]