Helium by Bruce Warren
Don’t confuse Mary Timony’s quiet storm EP Pirate Prude her debut disc with new band Helium, with the soulful, late night urban radio warmth of R.Kelly. No, Timony’s quiet storm is more like an inner rage, a distorted, beautiful, feminist manifesto from a frustrated folkie and trained classical/jazz guitarist who happened to spend her adolescent years around D.C.’s hardcore scene that included bands like Fugazi and Rites of Spring.
“I played guitar a lot when I was growing up in Washington,” Timony says. “I always wanted to be in a band, but being a girl I felt like I couldn’t do it. I went to an arts high school and took classical and jazz guitar lessons, I even played in a jazz combo. I’d go to all these punk clubs in D.C., but I was always doing folk–just playing some songs on my guitar in my house. I’m always struggling with the social world of music versus my own private world of music.”
“If I feel frustrated I’ll bang on my guitar. If I’m feeling good I’ll play something melodic and soft and organized. Helium is folk. Jazz is like rocket science.”
Timony’s indie-rock roots began in the D.C. band Autoclave, who she describes as “five girls who couldn’t stay together for more than a year.” After moving to Boston to attend Boston University, she formed Helium with Dumptruck’s former drummer and bassist, brothers Shawn and Brian Devlin [sic]. Three singles and three baseball seasons later, Helium recorded Pirate Prude at Philadelphia’s Studio Red.
With songs that are lyrically and thematically connected, Prude is a collection Timony describes as “three double-singles about feeling frustrated and angry and unempowered.” Influenced in part by the works of one of her favorite writers, Mary Daly (a feminist philosopher whose books include Beyond the God father and Gyn-Ecology), Timony pens lyrics like “let’s party for the apocalypse/When she comes out of the dirt like a little flower.”
“It’s really about empowerment,” she explains. “It’s about the fall of patriarchy and the return to matriarchy. It’s just my way of explaining where the anger comes from.”
It’s not only Timony’s compelling lyrics that make up Prude such a strong debut, but also the noisy, seemingly anti-pop, guitar distortion she wraps around her voice. Without the highly melodic lyrical context, Helium is a glorious mess of lazy guitars and improvisational noise. On songs like “Wanna A Vampire, Too” and “OOO,” she brings quiet, sustained breaks to emotional peaks, then allows the band to wail abrasively.
“Ok, can I just start naming things I like?” Timony asks, thankfully breaking the intensity of our conversation. “Joni Mitchell, Tom Waits, Lou Reed, Mark E. Smith, Suzanne Vega. And Margaret Atwood.”
What about the jazz stuff?
“Well the thing I learned from jazz is this behavioral pattern of improvisation. If I feel frustrated I’ll bang on my guitar. If I’m feeling good I’ll play something melodic and soft and organized. Helium is folk. Jazz is like rocket science.”
Timony says she feels her music is changing a lot because she’s concentrating more on writing songs than on recording with her band. “In some ways,the Helium EP isn’t really me,” she says. “Instead it’s songs by me recorded with my band, which is a different thing.
The new stuff I’m writing is a cross between cartoon music and monster music. At the end of the recording for the EP I came to a frustrating point, this feeling of my spirit dying, which had more to do with the lyrics than the music. I’m always looking to change. It’s healthy. It’s kind of like a regrowth.”
taken from June 1994 Magnet Magazine, issue Number Nine. Reprinted without permission.