Douglas Martin’s Dirty Shoes: The Original Faces and the Blurry Intrigue of Helen

Grouper's Liz Harris and friends Joe Bindeman and Scott Simmons, combine to make one of the most immersive noise-pop records in recent memory.
By    September 11, 2015


Douglas Martin once dragged a dead deer up a hill. 

As the driving force behind Grouper, Liz Harris’ music has been a vapor fog seeping into our minds. It seeps into our hearts, provokes our dreams of being submerged in water, soundtracks late nights and the dark thoughts that come along with them; it soundtracks balmy, overcast winter days and the understated yearning connected to them. With the ambient sway of her alluring guitar lines (and associated effects pedals), she’s delivered masterpiece after masterpiece. She collaborated with some of the brightest minds in off-center noise and folk music (Inca Ore, Tiny Vipers). Grouper’s music essentially existed to wander the square footage of empty space in big, lonely rooms or to fill small rooms with the type of sound that feels like it’s a tangible thing in the air until it’s almost suffocating. She’s collaborated with other artists, with extant bands, but has yet to be a part of a band herself. Until now.

The side players are there and they all have something to offer: Drummer Joe Bindeman of Eternal Tapestry provides the driving forward charge, while bassist/guitarist Scott Simmons of Eat Skull grounds the melodies, preventing them to free-float into the atmosphere (as Grouper records are starkly, spellbindingly wont to do at times). Harris controls the mood, wringing blasts of noise and conjuring clouds from the strangled neck of her guitar. But who is “Helen,” the mysterious backing vocalist with which we are provided no details except her first name? Is she a vagrant mystic, picked up by the band to offer ghostly backup vocals? Is she an actual ghost? Is she just some friend who records her parts at the studio and disappears into her candle-lit basement apartment? Does she have a Facebook?

Helen (the band) navigate a great deal of noise-pop territory in the thirty-two minutes they’ve allotted themselves on The Original Faces. They traverse down the well-worn roads of autumnal garage pop (“Right Outside,” “City Breathing”). They wind themselves through stunners such as “Motorcycle” and “Allison.” They perform blast tests on barnburners “Dying All the Time.” On “Grace” and “Pass Me By,” they perfectly set the Grouper template to a full-band format and showcase their best foot forward as pop melodists.

The voices of Harris and “Helen” highlight the sense of yearning by their individual and collective melancholy distance. Even at their most lighthearted, it sounds like they’re singing for something they lost a long time ago, making even the most buoyant of their noise-pop sound contemplative. It’s background music for ailing something broken, it’s music you blast loudly so that you can get lost in the cloud of noise. It’s a different experience depending on the place, time of day, and mood. Liz Harris has long been able to show her music is nebulous enough to be amorphous, but that’s generally harder to do with a rock album. The mystery and intrigue of The Original Faces does it in spades though, making it one of the most immersive noise-pop records to have come along in a while.


Photo by Natalie Anne Howard, originally used by Pitchfork

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