Palimpsest is a word I learned maybe five years ago in an art history class. It describes something with an original form that has been erased or obscured to be reused. Hundreds of years ago, when paper was expensive and scarce, it was a natural way of reusing materials. Now, we appreciate a palimpsest for the obscured information: something that was once insignificant enough to be erased to make way for more important work is now more significant because of it.
The cover of Helen‘s new album The Original Faces features a photo of Mount St. Helens, spewing ash after its infamous eruption. The photo is grainy and dull, like it was scanned from a decayed copy of National Geographic. A banner in the corner reads “Helen,” the surrounding text rudimentary obscured leaving only the band’s name. It’s a palimpsest. Mount St. Helens is a palimpsest.
Helen is a collective from Portland, Oregon, its members including (most notably) Liz Harris of Grouper, Jed Bindeman from Eternal Tapestry, and Eat Skull‘s Scott Simmons. The Original Faces at its heart finds itself indebted to rock’s roots in pop, like on the spitfire “Covered in Shade” that plays like a doo-wop record 200 yards back in a cavern. The trio find a comfortable place nestled in punk, fuzz-pop and shoegaze, bewitching soft melodies in noisy haze.
The songs come and go like firecrackers, “Motorcycle” and “Right Outside” being some of the more earwormy songs here while both barely eclipsing two minutes each. Harris’ voice is familiarly billowing and floaty, if anything the increased tempo on The Original Faces turns what would be melancholy as Grouper songs into aggressive joy. Nothing encapsulates those two emotions at a head like “Grace,” the bubblegum bass forcing a smile through blistering Big Muff-induced guitar.
In terms of pure composition, there are some obvious nods here to ’50s influenced noise pop mainstays like Vivian Girls, The Babies, or Slutever, but Harris’s presence makes sure the songs always stay in a heady space. “Allison” sounds like the dream realized, a shoegaze song with doo-wop swagger and a pop beat. Harris’s voice sounds like its quadruple-tracked by the time the chorus hits, high notes dripping in reverb and parting the clouds.
Driving anywhere around Southwestern Washington or Northwestern Oregon, Mount St. Helens’ stubby silhouette looms on the horizon. It was once one of the highlights of Portland’s skyline and a popular recreation area for millions of Cascadians. The immediate landscape was quite literally erased following the eruption, but with the destruction comes a new context and a new story. What Helen have done with The Original Faces is take a familiar idea and scrub the surface, reimagining themselves in its shape.
The Original Faces is out now via Kranky.