Mary Timony has never been the type to spill her guts in a song lyric. As for spilling somebody else’s guts, no problem. And that’s especially true on her new solo album, Mountains (Matador), which is populated largely by doomed and haunted Ophelia types. She’s not saying that any of those people is actually her, but she can tell you what the characters were seeing and hearing when the songs took place.
Consider “Painted Horses,” one of Mountain’s centerpieces. Like much of the album, it’s stripped down and stark, built around Timony’s voice and piano (she also plays guitar and viola on the disc). What lingers is the sense of despair that infuses both the lyric (“Won’t you kill me with your song/I’m already dead, so it shouldn’t take long”) and the lovely tune. “My songs are always about longing,” Timony explains over herbal tea at the Middle East, where she’ll be headlining downstairs next Thursday (May 11). “The character in the song always tries to transcend life. Usually they go up into the sky, or down under the ground. I don’t know why, but that happens in every song. When I’m writing, I usually see where it takes place; I look around and describe what I see. That one happens in a quarry — that’s one image I have. The other is looking down at the ocean. But it’s definitely over somebody of water.” The character in the song always tries to transcend life. Usually they go up into the sky, or down under the ground. I don’t know why, but that happens in every song.
Helium have been Timony’s main outlet for the past seven years, and she and drummer Shawn King Devlin have been the only constant members (the bass has been handled by Brian Dunton, by Ash Bowie, and by nobody). So you might expect a Timony solo album to be a Helium album under a different name, but you’d be only half right. Helium have evolved from a sharp and angry guitar band to a more prog-oriented rock outfit fond of lush arrangements and mystical imagery. The Magic City (Matador, 1998) ranks as one of the few great prog albums of its decade, possibly the only one made by a band associated with the indie-pop movement.
Mountains strips away the sophisticated production that producer Mitch Easter helped devise for The Magic City. If the new album brings to mind anyone untrendy, it’s Blue-era Joni Mitchell instead of Yes. And for the first time Timony is coming out and saying what she (or at least her narrator) is feeling. “The sadness on this record freaks some people out. To me it’s a positive thing, more about getting rid of sadness. I wanted something that was more lo-fi and raw in terms of emotional content I was less interested in creating something I could see and more in something I could feel. On Magic City, I could see the instruments working together; it was like looking at the inside of a clock. To me this is less surface.”
She alludes to its having been a year of personal shake-ups that influenced the direction of the album.”Music for me is more of a cathartic thing than it used to be. Right now that’s the whole point. But I hope there’s still parts of it that sound hopeful.” As for the early records, “I don’t ever listen to them. I like [the 1995 full-length] The Dirt of Luck a lot, but the ones before that, they were all really angry and crazy-sounding. I hope I’m not as scary anymore.”
So are Helium dead? Maybe, but nothing’s been decided as yet. What’s certain is that you won’t mistake Timony’s Middle East appearance for a Helium gig. She and producer/musician Christina Files — her collaborator from the album, a one-time guitarist in the Swirlies, and the current drummer in Victory at Sea — will be the only persons on stage,and they plan to get into some free-flowing improvs between songs. “I got a delay pedal and it’s been great. We do space jams.” In fact, Timony introduced this format about a year ago, when she and Files opened for a sold-out Sleater-Kinney show at the Middle East. Playing an hour of as-yet unreleased material, they started out with more-or-less straight pop but rose into the ether when Timony picked up her viola. It was a fitfully inspired set that fascinated some fans and alienated others, especially since it was a million miles from the kick-it-out rock that the Sleaters were doing. wouldn’t think of doing the Helium songs with this line-up, it just wouldn’t be fun. And I didn’t want to make a sparse, solo-sounding record and call it Helium.
If nothing else, I suggest, Timony challenges her audience to keep up with her. “People do say that every time I put a record out, and I always say,`Oh no, not again.’ But that just happens every time I come up with a new batch of songs. I just get an instinct and feel a change. For instance, I wouldn’t think of doing the Helium songs with this line-up, it just wouldn’t be fun. And I didn’t want to make a sparse, solo-sounding record and call it Helium.” Pushed further, she notes that a Museum School class on sound art was one of the main influences on the current album. “Something about that really appeals to me: the idea of making it about sound and nothing else. What I really like to do is to combine the pop and the noise, the ugliness and the beauty. And to me those two things are really close.”
While the album was being made, Timony turned up in a venue so normal and mainstream, it was downright surreal: a Priceline.com TV commercial that featured William Shatner. The ad finds Shatner fronting a rock band whose members include Timony and Sleater-Kinney guitarist Carrie Brownstein — and if you’re familiar with all the principals, there’s a great in-joke in there somewhere. The connection was director Phil Morrison, who’s also a rock-video director and is friends with Ash Bowie.
“He was really out of it, “Timony says of Shatner. “He was like a big, spoiled dog. He’d crack a lot of jokes trying to make people laugh, but he’d also do things like have the chef make him sushi and then throw it in the trashcan because it wasn’t good enough. So, yeah, he was funny, but actually he drove me nuts. I am glad I had the opportunity, though, because I was so broke.”
Cellars by Starlight by Brett Milano May 4 – 11, 2000 The Boston Phoenix
By Brett Milano
reprinted without permission.