By Jim Sullivan, Globe Staff, Dec 5, 1997
Mary Timony, singer-songwriter-guitarist of the Boston-based band Helium, is not the woman she used to be.
Wait. Check that. Start over.
Timony remains Timony. But she has shed some of her skin. She has moved beyond anger as a motivating force and she has muted the noisy dissonance. She has seen a light. She is bringing Helium, a trio augmented by keyboardist on tour and at the Paradise tonight, to another level. It’s clear on Helium’s sophomore CD, “The Magic City,” which was produced by studio whiz Mitch Easter.
“It wasn’t because I wanted to prove anything to anybody or get some kind of point across. It’s because I like it as an art form, and because I appreciate music that’s really pretty and sounds nice.”
There are no blood-curdling songs of vengeance. No attacking shards of guitar. There are fantasies; there is a prominent piano; there are horns and strings. There is a sonic sweep. It’s a shift from post-punk abrasion to pop and expansive progressive rock. Timony? It’s almost as if she’s gone space truckin’.
Not that there was a master plan to clean up the act. And not that it’s all sweetness and light in Helium-ville — these fairy tales are fractured. Timony has a gift for arrangement, and her songs take unexpected twists and turns.
“We definitely intended it to be a more soothing-sounding record,” explains Timony, from New York. “We wanted to use more organic-sounding instruments, and maybe we were sick of everything being distorted all the time, and there’s a lot that goes along with that. The lyrics reflect that. I wanted to get away from writing songs that were so personal they seemed self-absorbed.”
Helium’s music always had a sense of fragility and delicacy about it, qualities that lurked in the din. But in the past Timony and company — bassist Ash Bowie and drummer Shawn Devlin — liked nothing so much as setting up quiet passages, teasing with them, and then ripping it all to shreds. Clamor and clatter were definite calling cards. Timony’s persona was often near psychotic. Don’t push her, ’cause she’s close to the edge.
What caused the change? She can’t point to any life-affirming revelation. But her new voice did come out of writer’s block. The 27-year-old writer stepped back and tried to figure out why she got into this rock ‘n’ roll business, “realizing why I liked music,” she says. “It wasn’t because I wanted to prove anything to anybody or get some kind of point across. It’s because I like it as an art form, and because I appreciate music that’s really pretty and sounds nice.”
Another factor: Bowie, Timony’s boyfriend and also a member of the band Polvo, wrote with her.
Helium has also added a keyboardist-synthesist, Kendall Meade (formerly of the band Juicy), and, in concert, she fleshes out the new, richer sound. Timony says that as Meade has joined the touring lineup, it has made Helium concentrate on the newer material: They play the songs she’s learned. Also, says Timony, “we get really tired of playing songs 2,000 times.”
Timony says she’s beginning to look at her job with a somewhat different perspective. “I’m older and there’s more pressure from people to figure out what I’m doing,” she says. “We’re just trying to do the right thing, to do everything we can to help support the record.”
In the past, Timony’s stage presence had been icy-sexy, quasi-intimidating. Is she more welcoming now? “I think so,” she says, “but you’d have to ask somebody else. But that is the impression I get.”
In writing the lyrics, Timony wanted to get outside herself. “In writing the last record (The Dirt of Luck),” she says, “writing those lyrics, I felt like I expressed so much that it was, I don’t know, just over. These lyrics reflected me moving away from anger and into this realm where nothing is gross and dirty and awful. It’s a fantasy world. The characters in the songs are moving away from their real life — which is sad — and into outer space, or up in the sky and looking down on themselves.”
The intent, Timony says, is to create something of a musical dreamscape. “Hopefully,” she says, “it’s not too idiosyncratic and weird so that people won’t relate to it. Sometimes, I think it works.”