From Smug, vol. 3 #7, late 1997:
The Element of Fantasy
by Libby Callaway
”There was no girl awareness in that scene, and I don’t care who says there was. There wasn’t. I was glad that I got to see it though, because it filled me with this desire to play music.”
HELIUM’S FIRST ALBUM, 1995’s The Dirt of Luck (Matador), resonated with the trepidation the band’s singer/guitarist, a post-collegiate Mary Timony, was feeling about publicly fessing up to her dissatisfaction about being a woman in a decidedly sexist society. Her lyrics are angry, blunt, mired in resentment; her voice is satisfyingly flat. Everyone agreed, Ms. Timony was one pissed-off chickadee. Two years later, on the Boston trio’s second full length, The Magic City (Matador), Timony’s not exactly over getting her angst out through song-writing. However, this album shows the voice of someone who’s less reactionary in her views, more settled in her ways.
“I wanted to sound different on The Magic City, because that’s how I feel inside,” Timony offers while sipping a mug of coffee. “I feel bad talking about myself.” She pauses before letting a self-conscious giggle slip.
Although Timony is hesitant to express herself in interviews, she’s careful not to let her lyrics speak for her. The dreamy stories she weaves through her songs are just that, situations set in fantasies. Her real life, she says, isn’t quite as exotic as those of the tortured souls she sings about.
Dragons dot the sky above the Magic City, and birds float on breezes lofted by Timony’s studio-induced double harmonies. Moths bump iridescent wings in songs lit by the warmth of her shimmering low-watt vocals. The imagery here is dreamy; its effect, very often hypnotic and literally moving.
Like her current inspiration, Joni Mitchell, Timony uses place and movement to set the pace of her songs and describe her sense of belonging or loss. However, her method is a bit different from her boho idol’s. “[Mitchell] writes about literal travel a lot, but this isn’t literal travel,” she explains of the places she journeys to on the backs of colorful dragons, the yellow brick roads created by stretching sunbeams on “Soft Children” or the “big black Cadillac” our heroine uses for her escape in “Devil’s Tears.”
“These songs start somewhere and end up somewhere else,” Timony says of the travel themes. “Like they’ll start on the ground, move up to the sky and look down. Or they’ll move underground.”
The underground is quite literally a place Timony’s familiar with. She was musically born and bred observing the DC-hardcore scene. “It was all boys,” Timony recalls. “I liked going to the shows and socializing, but I always felt like I didn’t relate to the music at all.”
Channeling some of the attitude that’s gained her a place as an unbegrudged feminist in musical circles, she continues, “There was no girl awareness in that scene, and I don’t care who says there was. There wasn’t. I was glad that I got to see it though, because it filled me with this desire to play music. Maybe because I wanted to get back or something — like a revenge thing: ‘You made me watch you, so…’ But I think I’m finally over it.”
Timony wasn’t around when the chick-liberating riot grrrl movement washed up on the banks of the Potomac in the early ’90s, though shortly after high school, she began penning tunes with the women in the DC-based band Autoclave. (She pined though [sic: “penned through”?] a long-distance relationship with the band, which included former Slant 6-er Christine [sic] Billotte, while enrolled in Boston University. Autoclave broke onto the riot grrrl scene early in Timony’s college career, but interest in its work hasn’t died; is Autoclave’s two much-coveted EPs [“I’ll Take You Down” and Autoclave] are currently being re- released.)
Growing up in that scene affected how she viewed her own songwriting biases, not to mention what she had in her record collection. “I’ve been writing songs since high school, but the things I was writing were so different from the stuff I saw socially,” she says. “I never imagined I could play music in the big clubs. I never imagined my music was what people wanted to hear.”
The Magic City may go beyond the wide-reaching praise of Dirt to shock the humble Timony even more. Magic City is not a complete departure from the shifting, cranky, thinking-man’s rock that she, guitarist Ash Bowie (also of NC band Polvo) and Shawn Devlin (formerly of Boston’s Dumptruck) stirred up on the last album, but the influences here make it strikingly different — Timony’s obviously had some 80’s-era synth rock on her turntable over the last two years; Helium’s spooky, hallucinogenic sound now joins smatterings of sweet mandolin, simple Eastern melodies, plunky post-punk and dead-on folky movements a la Ms. Mitchell. It’s a record that, to quote a friend, is worth “obsessing over.”
As good a songwriter as she is, Timony’s not at all pretentious about her oeuvre. “I don’t feel like I live an art form,” she says, laughing off a question about the existence of the netherworldly spirits from which she seems to draw inspiration. “I feel like the art form is really restricted in itself.”
That’s not to say she doesn’t appreciate some artists’ admitted quirks. After all, an eccentric did inspire the album’s title. “One of the record’s main influences was a movie called Wild Wheels, an indie by Harold Blank about car artists, those people who make artwork out of their cars,” she explains. Timony’s favorite character in the film is a Southern suburbanite who lives out her fantasy by transforming her beat-up compact car into a gleaming pixie chariot. “She covered her Honda — a little car, not a big Cadillac or anything — in gold leaf,” Timony says, her face lighting up with a fond grin. “She calls it the Magic City Golden Transit. She wears a gold fairy hat, carries a fairy wand… She’s just a freak. [In the movie], she comes out on her front porch and says, ‘When I’m in my costume, I take on a whole new personality. I like to have a lot of fun.’
“She’s so much of a freak, but just so beautiful. She’s this woman who was a housewife for such a long time, but who has this whole other personality. It’s so beautiful. She just wants to do this crazy thing, and she’s going to do it.
“I could really relate to that.”
Reprinted without permission. Thanks (as ever!) to James Dye.