By Jim Walsh
Mary Timony is standing in a Toronto phone booth, fumbling for paper and something to write with. The singer/guitarist/songwriter for the Boston folk-fuzz-fright trio Helium is exclaiming at her discovery of the name Danny Elfman, the man responsible for creating soundtracks to such cartoony-horror flicks as “Edward Scissorhands,” “Beetlejuice,” “Nightbreed” and “The Nightmare Before Christmas.”
It’s no wonder that Timony takes a fancy to Elfman’s equally eerie and blithe soundscapes. Helium’s new album, “The Dirt of Luck” (Matador), is a similar tightrope walk that balances between yin and yang, darkness and light, anxiety and laughs. And, given her lyrical fetish for black angels, ghosts and graves, there can be only one term for it: haunted-house music.
Along with Helium, another leading proponent of the genre could be P.J. Harvey, whose latest album “To Give You My Love” traverses some of the same Harpy-happy soil as Helium; in fact, Timony’s partially whispered “Skeleton” could be an earthy, ambiguous sequel to Polly Jean’s “Down by the Water.”
“I would agree with that,” says Timony, who has never met Harvey. “But I would really understand her sense of humor, I think; I also understand how she says that she’s just joking, but people take it really seriously. That’s what happens to me, too.”
The interpretations started with Helium’s 1994 EP “Pirate Prude,” which contains songs like “I’ll Get You, I Mean It”; “Baby Vampire Made Me”; and “Wanna Be a Vampire, Too, Baby.” Though the doom-and-gloom nature of the lyrics – not to mention the band’s wild jazz-rock-classical improvisational leanings – could have cast Helium as last year’s goth model, Timony insists her nightmares are pure fantasy.
“I think a lot of the darkness comes from, well, definitely my mood when I was writing the songs. But with this record, I don’t feel like the songs are about dying or anything. With our last EP, a lot of the songs were written from this kind of mental mode of dying. But I feel like these songs are written … after death,” she explains with a self-conscious laugh.
[pullquote]”And I think for a while there, I was going through this phase where I was really into monster, haunted-house sort of music. I don’t think a lot of that made it onto the record, but I feel like the reason why that sound is so appealing and funny to me is because I was kind of making fun of myself for being depressed, or for thinking that I’m dying. The music makes fun of my depression.”[/pullquote]
Which is a neat trick in these days of the depression-wallowing, feel-my-pain rock song. But as their moniker suggests, Helium sucks the misery out of life and makes it sound scary-bizarre when it comes out of Timony’s lungs.
Another way Timony deals with the ghastlier aspects of modern life is to channel her female-specific rage into her songs and occasionally address her lyrics to “this female superhero figure; this higher female power.” A good example is “Medusa,” in which Timony pens a love letter to the serpent-haired bogeywoman of Greek mythology.
“She’s this strong female figure, but she’s also kind of a monster, and horrible and hated by people because she … what does she do?”
Turns anyone who gazes upon her face into stone. Which sounds fairly serious, but Timony insists otherwise. To wit: The jacket sleeve of “The Dirt of Luck” includes a photo of a young woman with “BITCH” tattooed on her forehead and an anatomy chart illustration of a heart superimposed over her chest. But sitting on top of her head are not snakes, but hair rollers. Inside Timony’s head, it’s all part of her atypical path to empowerment.
“It’s empowerment, but it’s empowerment through becoming crazy,” she says. “I remember this thing my brother told me. He said he was on the bus in Barcelona when he discovered how to get over being shy. He did it by making all these weird contorted faces on the bus in front of all these people, acting like a complete idiot. And I was, like, ‘God, Todd, that is so sad. That is so wrong.’ But now I’m recognizing that part of myself, too.”
By this time, Timony has found a pen. But so boisterous have her Elfman exclamations been that the person in the phone booth next to her tells her to shut up. Which she does – for the time being. Undoubtedly, the innocent bystander will become the focus of Timony’s rage later that night onstage, and perhaps some of it will even spill over to Helium’s set Sunday in the Entry. Just be thankful that that Medusa thing is only the product of an active imagination …
St. Paul Pioneer Press (MN)
April 28, 1995