For my money Helium are entirely capable of being the most creative pop band in Boston, or at least the one doing the most to stretch the limits of the pop format. And they may be the band who’ve progressed the most as well. Their new EP, No Guitars (Matador), is as different from their album The Dirt of Luck (my pick for the best local album of ’95) as that CD was from the tense guitar jams of their early club shows.
Produced by the band with pop icon Mitch Easter, No Guitars — which in fact has more guitars and fewer keyboards than last time — is a hauntingly lovely set drenched in mystery and abstraction. No longer driven by rage the way she was in the early days, singer/guitarist Mary Timony has developed a more ghostly style of singing — which is appropriate, because the six tracks here form a musical ghost story of sorts. The opening “Silver Strings” is the closest thing to a straight-ahead pop tune, with a soft-then-loud structure, extra layers of guitar from Easter, and a fine hook for Timony to wrap herself around. The chorus could almost come from a Saturday-night fun song, but they’ve got something more sinister in mind: “We’re going out with our guitars/ I play the radio, baby, in the Devil’s car/And we’re going out and we’ll never come back.” Suffice to say that she isn’t just driving to Somerville.
That mood is maintained through the disc, which clings less to pop structures and includes a Renaissance-styled instrumental (“13 Bees,” a piano/recorder duet) and a 90-second rocker (“The King of Electric Guitars,” driven by Shawn King Devlin’s military drums). The lengthy finale, “Riddle of the Chamberlin,” takes a swing from skewed pop to tape-looped strangeness (think of the Beatles’ “A Day in the Life”), before resolving into a pop hook that fades out just as quickly, leaving you hanging until the band’s full-length album comes out in August.
Originally appeared in the Boston Phoenix, April 24th, 1997, By Brett Milano