Chamber Punk

Helium comes up for air and brings along an intoxicating new album

Mary Timony sounds confused. The singer/guitarist for the Boston trio Helium knows she's supposed to be calling someone, but she can't quite recall the name.

"Umm, is Shawn there?" she asks in her soft, reedy voice, revealing an absolute lack of confidence. Before she can be told that no one named Shawn lives at this residence, she haltingly identifies herself and apologizes for the mix-up. You see, she's stuck in this noisy Perkins restaurant in Montana, and she's been doing interviews all day, and, well, she's just a bit tired.

Few sane artists really relish the grind of daily self-promotion, but the 27-year-old Timony seems particularly ill-equipped for it. Though Helium has been together for five years, the band has rarely toured until this fall, when it unveiled its second full-length album on Matador, The Magic City. Though the lack of live action could be attributed to the busy schedules of her bandmates--bassist Ash Bowie plays with Polvo, and drummer Shawn Devlin has moonlighted with Dumptruck--Timony hints that the biggest reason is that she just can't come to grips with the touring experience.

"It's really hard when you're on the road," Timony says. "I still haven't worked that all out. It's difficult to write. It's difficult to be creative when you've got to do a bunch of other stuff. Although it's more fun now, 'cause we're playing with a keyboard player, and we just decided we'd work harder."

The keyboard player is more a necessity than a luxury for Helium on this tour, because Timony's latest batch of songs employs such a colorful sonic palette that the standard rock-trio format couldn't begin to do it justice. The Magic City is not only one of the most artful and imaginative albums of the year, but it's a collection that breaks one of the fundamental rules taught in remedial Rock 101 classes.

Every music hack this side of Dave Marsh will tell you that the best rock feeds on anger, much like a shark prefers warm flesh. A few rock artists--John Lennon, Patti Smith--have been able to find dignified new avenues after conquering their demons, but even these people were never quite as riveting when they no longer had axes to grind. Most angry young rockers simply fall off the globe, with nothing left to express after the angst fades. Anybody heard from Joe Strummer lately?

Helium is almost an inversion of that theory. True, the early Helium was a moderately interesting, angry young indie-rock band. The 1994 EP Pirate Prude contained the notorious track "XXX," the video for which depicted Timony as dolled-up fantasy slut, an image which she intended as an ironic swipe at macho sexism, but which Beavis and Butt-head predictably interpreted as simple horniness.

The following year's full-length debut, The Dirt of Luck, offered evidence of Timony's growth as a quirky tunesmith, but nothing could have prepared one for the gorgeous monster that is The Magic City. Recorded with famed R.E.M. producer Mitch Easter--who also handled Pavement's recent Brighten the Corners--Magic abandons the oppression of guitar distortion, and consequently allows a host of trippy textures to breathe in the mix. Harpsichords, sitars and violins collide on an arty-pop album that's extravagantly produced, but never slick. It's chamber music for the lo-fi, indie-rock crowd. Easter, who Timony describes as "really, really awesome," provided the band with a kind of sonic toy box in his Fidelitorium home studio, and clearly, the band took advantage of it.

"We were just kind of tired of the messed-up sound of distortion, and the studio we were recording in had a lot of analog keyboards," Timony says. "We decided we liked the sound of acoustic type of instruments better 'cause they're more soothing. I guess what happened is we started using the chamberlin a whole lot and it had a whole lot of really good acoustic sounds on it, so that was an influence."

Timony knew that this album had to sound different, because she felt different. She was no longer the girl who described herself in song as "creepy and sullen and running out of my room." She was no longer the incendiary gender warrior who could write, even with tongue in cheek, "The only good man is a dead man." The problem is, once you discard an emotion as powerful as anger, what do you replace it with?

"I had a lot of trouble writing any songs for this record, and that may have had something to do with it," she says. "I felt like I fell into this role earlier that was easy to write songs from, and then I got tired of that. Then I thought, 'I don't really know what I'm going to do.' I guess I just started thinking if I can't be so personal with the songs anymore, I just want to have them be more imaginary and playful and that kind of thing. They're based in reality, but a lot of them are images that are totally unreal."

The imagery suggests that Timony is an emotional time traveler alternately fast-forwarding into a space-age fantasy world and rewinding back to medieval myth. In "Aging Astronauts," the song she credits with curing her writer's block, she sings over a jazzy-folk acoustic guitar rhythm, "I count the stars almost every day/The aging astronauts have floated away." And even if Timony's thin vocal quaver recalls iconoclastic labelmate Liz Phair, a line like "It's the season of the witch and the drinking of wine" reads more like a Stevie Nicks journal entry.

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