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Review: Grouper’s Liz Harris Peeks Through the Clouds on Helen’s Debut, ‘The Original Faces’

8
SPIN Rating: 8 of 10
Release Date: August 27, 2015
Label: Kranky

Over the course of her nearly decade-long career as Grouper, Liz Harris has become a master of all things overcast. Her ambient compositions and waterlogged ballads are like fogged-up windows — bleary enough to indicate the bleakness inside, but only its vaguest outlines. There’s suggestion of something heartbreaking, but its true shape remains occluded, unobtainable, and all the more moving for such an approach. With Helen, her occasional “pop” band, she’s occasionally parted those clouds, peeled back the layers of reverb to reveal the bruised heart at the center of those songs.

Two years after debuting the band with a snowblind 7″, the trio — which also features Jed Bindeman of psych-explorers Eternal Tapestry and Scott Simmons of Eat Skull — return with their debut, The Original Faces. “Felt This Way” and “Dying All the Time,” the two scratchy recordings from that single, were already among the most structured and vibrant recordings she’d released under any moniker. But this new full-length goes further, shaping the emotional goop and debris of Grouper’s shuttered songs into pieces that start to resemble guitar-pop songs — as if Giacometti were stretching out Built to Spill songs rather than the human form.

“Violet” shimmers and shudders like a nightmarish revision of late-aughts indie rock, as if Harris tried to rewrite Vivian Girls records while nodding out. It’s an LP’s worth of catchy and luminous moments, but each one seems self-conscious about the imminent comedown, as if deliberately the flimsy guitar parts could give way and send the whole structure back into the simmering ooze that’s most familiar to fans of hers. Opener “Ryder” plays with this most evidently, starting with a guitar line that could’ve been ripped her iconic Dragging a Dead Deer Up a Hill before dovetailing into a more straightforward power-trio burble. She’ll shine for a while, but without letting you forget how long she’s spent in darkness.

A lot of the newfound brightness is owed to Simmons and Bindeman’s rickety rhythm work, which similarly offers a promise of propulsion and a threat that it could all fall apart, a radical version of transparency that lets you see the inner workings, even when they aren’t all that pretty. But Harris is the dying red giant at the heart of it, issuing flickering guitar bits and gaseous, burning harmonies — while threatening to spread out and swallow up the whole mix.

But part of The Original Faces’ triumph is that she never actually does space out that far. These pop structures, Harris seems to say, can only really last in brief flashes. After years of studying and outlining the mountainous crevasses of a cloudy sky, when the sun peeks through it’s blinding — stare too long and the darkness is eternal. Fortunately, Helen realized this obvious pitfall and set themselves up accordingly, allowing tracks to slip into interstitial gloom and shutting the shades when the time is right. Maybe not tomorrow, but someday the sun’ll come out again, and it’ll be worth it. The warmth feels sweeter the longer you’ve spent inside.