Artist: Helium                                             Release Date: April 1995
Label: Matador Records                                       Running time: 41m 22s

Shawn Devlin - Percussion, Drums
Mary Timony - Organ, Bass, Guitar, Keyboards, Vocals, Xylophone
Ash Bowie - Bass, Guitar, Keyboards
Arranged, Engineered & Produced by Helium and Adam Lasus 1

Musical Context :

      Mary Bozano Timony (named after both grandmothers; Mary, on her father's side, is Irish, while grandma Bozano was Czechoslovakian) sang, in her teens, on the sidewalks of Washington, DC with street musicians & soon afterwards topped her class studying viola in her art school. Then, abruptly, came her all-girl Catholic high school punk band, Autoclave, ca. 1990. While credible, one record later, that fell apart (another ex-member and friend went on to form Slint) and Timony was drafted for a new project while she studied music and English at Boston University. Helium formed in 1992 with Brian Dunton on bass and Shawn King Devlin and started releasing 7"s like 1993's The American Jean. Soon after, the Pop Narcotic label got them in the studio for a follow-up, the Hole in the Ground single.
      The 1994 Pirate Prude EP got mixed reviews from cranky critics, but was a college radio riot grrl anthem. Finally came, The Dirt of Luck LP, in 1995, heavy, atonal guitars, spooky keyboards, and Timony's breathy alto laid over an understated rhythm section. That year, Polvo's Ash Bowie also joined the lineup, replacing Dunton on bass. The next record, The Magic City pulled the curtain on the band, despite the warming of critics, opening for Sonic Youth on their summer tour and growing celebrity. Timony went on to release her first solo LP, Mountains, continuing to follow the increasingly elliptical folk-medieval trajectory which marks the last Helium album.

What’s it sound like though?

      The loudest rock-out moments on the record reach a slurred guitar wash over Timony`s mostly-buried vocals (think Kissability from Daydream Nation) while the quietest sections come off like whispered prayers murmured along in the back alley of a bar, with music pulsating through the walls (think Electric Light from Is This Desire). Liberal sprinklings of profanity & not-so-veiled sexual innuendo also give the record, esp. the second side with tracks like Superball, a seriously damaged, fuck and run kind of feel. However, the real clincher comes about nine minutes in, when the band ratchets their drone up tenfold with a mazing, buzzbomb six-minute digression, Baby`s Going Underground, which jumps back and forth between kindergarten xylophone solos and twelve-bar distorted guitar caterwauls, the last of which is drawn out for last two minutes. The album also finishes with a lush feedback valentine to all the glum kids, Flowers of the Apocalypse, which is easily one of the prettiest excuses to warble along to busted amplifiers you could ask to close up a record.
      More importantly for our present concerns though is that this a simply fantastic summer evening album. Songs like Medusa, All the X`s Have Wings and Honeycomb were just made for hot, breezy evenings on rooftops, patios or fire escapes, sipping icy drinks with the gang, flicking bottle caps at the moon and running off at the mouth. This is an American punk aesthetic grown, twisting and vine-like, into altogether more artfully thrashing direction, with all the weird, buried spirituality and wide-open jaded naivete you might want to glean from a dozen guitar-driven songs.

Say, for the sake of argument, I love the record? What else might I try?

      Yo La Tengo‘s Painful, Cat Power‘s What Would the Community Think and certainly Mogwai`s Young Team ... should get you started down the right road in any case. Each record was released in the years afterwards, but still fits in coherently with an early post-rock guitar sound that each band was trying for at their own particular moment - a little unpolished here, a little twee there and more than a little plain fuzzy & loud over all. Mary Timony has also just released her second solo disc in May 2002, The Golden Dove. If you like the more jangly, lyrical songs on this record, you should have a listen. The first single, Blood Tree, sounds fantastic (, if in a weirdly, junior high, mid-80s, Heaven Is a Place on Earth kind of way.2

The Songs:
1. Pat's Trick - 4:53       ~ like a half-dreamt soundtrack to a Kathy Acker novel, read on a sweaty too-long night, chain smoking and feet up on the windowsill, this is pure adrenaline-fired bookish exhibitionism - ‘...we had a pirate band / a tear for every grain of sand ...‘ ~
2. Trixie's Star - 3:48       ~ Dante`s Vita Nuova (life renewed by love) gets inexplicably thrown into this little rumination on the fallen state of the world as Timony again brings a little of the Catholicism on stage for the indie mass - ‘... cruising and shooting and fucking like some kind of movie ...’ ~
3. Silver Angel - 1:53       ~ Call this Gnostic Rock - "... Love as light as Light as A Lead Dove ...” - ~
4. Baby's Going Underground - 6:35       ~ The masochist Venus in Furs thing going on here isn`t particularly subtle and the title itself seems to tip towards vu - but the song is still a near-perfect pinwheel ~
5. Medusa - 3:11       ~ this sounds almost Elizabethan lyrically (granted I cannot know how much the band got into sonnets) though it saunters along like gutter-gospel rock molasses - ‘... wings of a dragonfly / kiss of a butterfly / hallelujah on high ...’~
6. Comet #9 - 2:09       ~ phantasmagoric solo on the piano ~
7. Skeleton - 4:11       ~ fantastically Dia de los Muertos, singing a slow ballad from the point of view of a female skeleton - ‘... your lips are as red as Lucifer / your hair is up in curlers ...’ ~
8. Superball - 2:35       ~ ‘... hook me with your hand / my mouth is full of sand / everything I say ends with and ...’ ~
9. All the X's Have Wings - 3:13       ~ dreamy, out of focus, echoing - and in that `we are measured not by what we gain, but what we lose` sort of vibe, this track would be at home in any poignant Hal Hartley number ~
10. Oh the Wind and Rain - 5:29       ~ Someone went to Sunday School and clearly felt compelled to exorcise a bit - ‘...that girl knows where she doesn`t belong / under the ground where the days are long ...’ ~
11. Honeycomb - 4:22       ~ This a lolling, driving beside the lupins and railway tracks in the July dusk with the top down sort of song about a girl too sweet and slow to leave home, which, as mentioned above, is meant to be pretty blatantly erotic ~
12. Flower of the Apocalypse - 3:46       ~ Doomsday religious jamming with apparition-like lyrics ~

1 Also engineered the first Madder Rose record, Bring It Down, which (just after Liz Phair`s Exile...) was one of the great US indie debuts that year. Personally, seems to me more than a few folks had just about given up on American music scene about that time, still mired in the throes of grunge and seemingly fixated on Seattle rock as it was. Then mercifully, amid all the Pearl Jam and Alice in Chains suddenly one summer in the blink of an eye - Yo La Tengo, Low, Helium, Liz Phair, Madder Rose, Mazzy Star, Bedhead, et al. They all seemingly sending their dispatches out from some Alternate State of America. So the NME got dropped, at first hesitantly, seeing the horrors writhing across the screens from overseas, and you could breathe a sigh of relief, finally & thankfully coming to realize one could still trust the folks down there with a guitar and melody.
2 That`s the music mind you, because the tenor of Timony`s voice actually alternates more between Aimee Mann, Edith Frost and Carla Bozulich (of the Geraldine Fibbers), as far as I can peg it.

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