The Neglected Canon #3
by Billy Brooks
Helium released their first, outstanding EP in 1994, and went on to put out two LPs before they called it a day, and the members moved on to other projects. It’s their debut album, The Dirt of Luck, predecessor to The Magic City, that stands out as the pinnacle of their career, with EP Pirate Prude and their swan song suffering from a lack and an excess of production polish, respectively. Mary Timony fronted the band and wrote the songs, and although she’s since been involved in the supergroup Wild Flag – among other fairly underground projects – she is criminally under-appreciated as a musician. Her guitar chops, while typically minimalistic on TDOL, are deeply impressive in an almost instinctual way, and her airy singing style, which is best described as tuned conversation, complements her ethereally simplistic lyricism.
Often sticking solidly to a rhyme scheme of rhyming quartets (in album highlight Superball, she somewhat redundantly points out at the end of one verse ‘everything I say ends with “and”’), she relies on monosyllables and simple imagery, with enticingly bizarre results. The meaning of the words in each song on the first album is often impenetrable, a tactic which reduces the vocals to a textural device rather than a vehicle for information. Skeleton is weirdly divided on this front. Although the verses offer potent yet understated social criticism, the chorus lyrics represent totally hollow doggerel about the joys of eating candy. The choruses of many rock songs often carry far less semantic meaning than the verses, but this takes it to a new level. What’s more, is that the verses are devilishly growled, whispered and mumbled, so that the lyric is almost inaudible, while the chorus is imbued with one of the most beautiful melodies on the album, and sung with brazen whimsy over tasteful, half-time instrumentation.
The potlatch approach of the group to their most valuable and impressive material is reflected all over the place on their first album, which often cloaks the most impressive lyrics in the least impactful of backings, while saving the most immediately catchy and enjoyable of instrumentals for use as accompaniments to apparently specious, or at least unabashedly opaque lyrics. As a die hard fan, I do insist that this oughtn’t to be taken as a compromise but rather, a technique of songwriting, which dares the listener to love even the most simple, even amateur songwriting.
In the aforementioned Superball, for example, the group put the album’s catchiest riff and most sharply produced percussion track behind Timony’s observation that:
like a superball:
throw me at the wall”
Which follows in a somewhat supererogatory way, the admission that she’s ‘not that tall’. Mary, we understand.
However, this is not always standard practice, and the frequency of this technique’s employment seems to fade as the album goes on. The two penultimate tracks are the most meaningful lyrics on the LP, and perhaps in the band’s whole back catalogue. Oh, the Wind and the Rain represents a frustrated harangue against someone who’s made the mistake of telling Mary what she can and can’t do, up with which she will not put, and to which she responds in a most no-nonsense and melodically outstanding fashion. This is a treat for feminist rock fans, as it features a defiant rock ‘n’ roll lyric over a similarly rebellious harmonic structure, straight out of the back pocket of Cheap Trick, or Smashing Pumpkins. It’s the lyric that makes the song, though, as Timony speak-sings:
“I want everything
don’t tell me
you don’t think that I do”
In Honeycomb, Timony’s exceptional grasp of metaphor and imagery is presented most clearly. The song narrates a relationship so frustrating that it confines a tortured romantic to their bedroom. The verses are brutally frank in their depiction of the kind of state of crippling self-doubt that, I hope it’s fair to say, we’re all susceptible to in the face of relationship troubles. The chorus describes the Demetrius to Helium’s Hermia as:
“Sweeter than a honeycomb…
Slower than a valium”
The image of valium, a sleeping pill often used to induce highs, is a recurring one in the Timony oeuvre, but is most effective here, amongst slide guitars, soft percussion, and lazy harmonies. The feeling of love is equated to a dreamstate, and a stasis.
In the album’s finale, a double-tracked Timony sings lightly over an ambient backing of double, or perhaps triple guitar feedbacks, about nothing in particular, as far as the average listener is concerned. The song’s title, Flower of the Apocalypse, is plenty in itself as an accompaniment to the plaintive melodies. After the apocalypse, life goes on, and the flowers are still in bloom, despite all of the destruction. In turn, despite its often frantic, almost hurtful moments of impact, and its frequent blips of vulnerability, this album represents continuation, and perseverance in the ugly face of suppression, and deserves a listen, or several, in today’s climate especially.