From Bikini #0027, November 1997:
Mary Timony — the singer/guitarist/principal force behind the Boston-based trio Helium — mixes fascinating, fantastic lyrics with a unique guitar style that’s slack-key, string-bending, sleepy, and lyrical. Her words refer to succubi, witches, dragons, ghosts, vampires, arcane philosophers, and primal, visceral emotions — and it all comes out as transcendent, weird, distorted pop music.
”The unconscious part of it is that I don’t think I feel as angry as I used to. And the conscious part of it is that I got tired of explaining it in interviews. It’s so hard to explain these things.”
But more importantly, Beavis and Butt-Head like her. “This chick is cool! She looks like she just got up and it’s like 4:00 in the afternoon!” This after seeing her in hair curlers in a video for “XXX,” a song off the EP Pirate Prude. The band followed that withThe Dirt of Luck, a magnificent, hefty-duty blast of rage, but one that doesn’t soak the listener with riot grrrly rhetoric; Timony’s lyrics are subversive, sinking their teeth into you before you realize it. They smartly, and with a disarming, self-deprecating humor, reveal the monstrous aspects of our culture’s attitudes toward women.
Helium’s new album, The Magic City, is another rocker, but it’s more of a poppy affair. (Pop like early E.L.O. or Brian Eno, not the Spice Girls or something.) The disc — the second with the current line-up of Ash Bowie of Polvo and Shawn Devlin of Dumptruck — is more a keyboard-laden affair, with nods to The Door’s Ray Manzarek and Gary Numan when he was in Tubeway Army. It has moments of radical fidelity changes, enhanced by the use of ancient, clunky prog-rock synths, which collide tastily with the minor-keyed, dreamy guitar style that’s become a Helium trademark.
As Timony and I speak, it’s later afternoon. Though it’s clear she’s been awake for at least a few hours, she proves Beavis and his buddy were right. She’s relaxed, fun to speak with, and likes to go off on conversational tangents. But she’s not so into talking about technical/studio pyrotechnics, except to say that “the main difference is that the sounds on the last album were distorted, and these aren’t.”
Another difference between the albums is that Timony’s words are full of fantasy this time around; they revel in colliding planets, crystal teardrops, and soft children spewing cosmic rays. Strangely, Timony is somehow able to successfully employ such typically horrendous lyrical content, but in a way that’s not like “please dig how ironic I’m being.” (In rock, writers such has J.R.R. Tolkien have influenced the worst pompous ’70s songs, from Zeppelin to Uriah Heep.)
Not that it isn’t not [sic?] funny when in “Leon’s Space Song” she sings “I got a funny feeling about you / Maybe it was all of those nasty things you made me do / Like sitting there waiting for you to break through the other side / Saying, ‘I’ve got a rainbow dragon we could ride.’”
“It always kind of scares me,” she says of her lyrics, “because like there’s this kid who does our website, and I’ll check in on it, and sometimes the kids try and figure out what the lyrics are and they’re the most disturbing things!”
The change in lyrical direction on Magic was sort of a conscious thing, according to Timony. “The unconscious part of it is that I don’t think I feel as angry as I used to. And the conscious part of it is that I got tired of explaining it in interviews. It’s so hard to explain these things.”
As for influences on Helium’s music, Timony — who graduated from B.U. with a degree in English Lit. — says, “I don’t think I ever consciously try to imitate something. If I really had to think of what influences the stuff we make, I’d tend to list some of the things I’ve read rather than other music. I went through this phase where I was really interested in Mary Daley. The way she thought is completely unlike any other type of writing. . . it’s part philosophy, part religion, part literature. Her words are really poetic, but they’re all about Truth, as opposed to Art.
“And lately I’ve been on this Jane Austen kick, which is definitely not influencing my music. . . . Well, actually it is. Reading her is about disappearing into this whole other world, which is kind of like this whole fantasy thing. Austen is writing about this world that doesn’t exist any more.”
Unfortunately, Helium doesn’t pay Timony’s bills. Yet. “My last job was working in the shipping room for a video distributor,” she recalls. “It was OK ’cause I knew a bunch of people who worked there.” But if whatever the things are — luck? charisma? a Spike Jonze video? — that lead to financial success don’t happen, if Helium fail to transform themselves from another indie club-playing dues-paying indie-rock band (“I don’t think of us as indie-rock at all!” Timony challenges), it’s not for lack of talent. Especially not on stage.
Not that Timony agrees. She claims — in her typically honest, humble, and a tad self-deprecating fashion — to actually not enjoy performing live. “Playing live for me is pretty rote,” she says. “You do it ’cause you have to. I like touring, but I haven’t gotten to the point where I like actually performing. Yet. . . I keep hoping it I will.”
But having experienced Helium on stage, I can vouch that the band serve a tasteful soup of understated, melodic noise. It might be rough-hewn, but that’s what shows are all about, really. So next time they play at a club near you, check ’em out, and marvel at whatever world Ms. Timony throws herself into: “I’m trying to figure out what to do next. I’m off the fantasy tip already.”