From Helium To Ex Hex: A Guide To The Music Of Mary Timony
As early as 2002 or 2003, Mary Timony was teaching guitar lessons, a fact that’s emerged in recent years as a core tenet of her ongoing narrative. Any vocation capable of evoking happiness in its practitioners is certainly a blessing; the former Helium frontwoman, by all accounts, relishes coaching generations of aspiring shredders and strummers. Yet as a longtime fan of her musical résumé — a kaleidoscopic sprawl of bands, one-offs, and guest appearances both wider and deeper than many may remember — it’s difficult to read about these lessons without some sentimental chagrin, some feeling of injustice. This is Mary Timony, after all, a woman who mastered pop, punk, rock, prog, and every genre in-between; who collaborated with members of Sleater-Kinney, Slant 6, Quasi, the Magnetic Fields, Polvo, the Dambuilders, Shudder To Think, Tortoise, the Deftones, and the Beauty Pill; who co-starred with William Shatner and Carrie Brownstein in a series of Priceline.com commercials.
When Robert Christgau opined, back in 2004, that “the world does owe her a living,” he was winding down a defense of Courtney Love’s riotous America’s Sweetheart — but the phrase would seem to universally apply to any singular songwriter who unwittingly eased audiences through the ravages of adolescence and post-adolescence. If Timony lacks Love’s brash, brassy stage presence, she is no less vital. At a Magic City-era Helium show at Baltimore venue Fletcher’s, Timony, bassist Ash Bowie, and drummer Shawn King Devlin loosed rippling, euphoric energy, their eyes shut too tightly, seemingly half-asleep. I’d never seen a band rock quite so passive-aggressively before — outwardly disengaged from the crowd, yet fully on — and I haven’t again since.
Matador just reissued both Helium LPs — 1995’s The Dirt Of Luck and 1997’s The Magic City — as well as the obscurities collection Ends With And, which makes this an apt moment to revisit Timony’s remarkable career to date. There’s still much more to come, to be sure, but even if there weren’t, Timony would have already left us with one of indie rock’s most diverse, exciting bodies of work.
Helium — “Ocean Of Wine”
Washington, D.C. native Timony first made waves in 1990 and 1991 as a member of the short-lived, math-rock outfit Autoclave, though her guitar leads were more interesting and idiosyncratic than the music made by the band itself. Once she moved to Boston for college and joined fledging Helium, her unique melodic instincts leapt to the fore. The unyielding, sky-wide “Lucy” was one of the band’s earliest songs, and remains among its best; when that chorus hits, Timony sounds like Jean Grey surrendering to the Phoenix force.
Helium — “Lucy”
Helium’s’s 1992 debut EP, Pirate Prude, felt sensual, repulsive, and alien all at once — shoegaze noir as roiling id, dark splashes of intensity feeding back on themselves. If “Baby Vampire Made Me” could reframe horror as something anthemic and “Love $$$” could flip a meaningful glance at a mirror into a teachable feminist moment, the stunning “XXX” could triple-knot gender expectations as the guitars flared and blared.
Helium — “XXX”
The Dirt Of Luck (1995) ushered mythology and keyboards into the mix, with Helium sharpening and clarifying their dynamics, their compositional attack. This, all of a sudden, was a rock ‘n’ roll band. The skewed power-pop of “Superball” induced winces and fist-pumps. Drowsy bummer ballad “Honeycomb” rode slide-guitar deep into a nightmare zone of unrequited love. Driving single “Pat’s Trick” doubled as a mash note to Timony’s brother; the meticulous, thundering “Medusa” spotlit her penchant for vivid, cinematic imagery.
Helium — “Medusa”
Surreptitious, graceful, and austere in places, the No Guitars EP (1997) signaled a stylistic shift that The Magic City would solidify later that calendar year: a full-throated embrace of buzzy, psychedelic prog-rock. But opener “Silver Strings” was also a thrilling example of something that would become an occasional Timony trope, elsewhere on the EP and beyond: songs resolutely about themselves, about a band’s hopes, intents, or changes in direction. “There is nowhere in the world you can hide from this awful lullaby,” she counseled on “Dragon #2.” That wasn’t a threat; it was a promise.
Helium — “Dragon #2″
As epic pop-prog moves go, The Magic City remains an unparalleled marvel, 50 gamma-ray soaked minutes of Medieval chords, rampaging keyboards, pedal steel, and Timony finding a greater confidence in her vocals. Veteran hand Mitch Easter engineered City at North Carolina studio Fidelitorium, but these tunes may as well have been cut to tape somewhere in California; there’s a lightness and buoyancy to them that’s light years removed from Pirate Prude, albeit the sound remains quintessentially Helium. From the cosmic country lilt of “Aging Astronauts” to fantastical caper “Devil’s Tear” to “Vibrations”‘ Ren Faire word salad-cum-scale-climbing confection to the syrup-flow transcendence of “Ocean Of Wine,” this was Helium at their most distinctive and their most accessible.
Helium — “Devil’s Tear”
But City also represented the end of Helium, and marked the beginning of what might be thought of as Timony’s wilderness years, where she would eventually part ways with longtime label Matador and work briefly with myriad collaborators. From a fan’s perspective, this is an exciting era to revisit, since many of her creative triumphs flew under the radar as much of the wider muso and critical community (wrongly) lost interest. This was a time when low-stakes, low-risk team-ups proliferated; see the Spells, a collaboration with Brownstein, and Green 4, a project that never made it beyond the demo stage. (During Helium’s reign, Timony’s racked up some notable contributions, including the 6ths’ “All Dressed Up In Dreams” and the now lost-to-history Mind Science Of The Mind.) Timony also surfaced on a pair of trip-hop-esque/post-Garbage 2.0 Team Sleep songs during this period, and — more significantly — kicked off a fascinating four-album solo run.
Team Sleep — “Tomb Of Ligiea”
Minimalist and isolating, Mountains placed Timony’s voice front and center, even when, as with “Valley Of One Thousand Perfumes,” the volume swelled. Fantasy, numerology, and biography seemed to intertwine as pianos splashed out “Dungeon Dance”; the No Guitars version of “13 Bees” is upgraded from instrumental interlude to riddle-worthy plaint; and “I Fire Myself” gets down with shakers and the world’s loneliest wood claps.
Mary Timony — “I Fire Myself”
Matador solo bow The Golden Dove dipped a cautious toe into the Timony equivalent of singer-songwriter pop (“Blood Tree,” the Liz Phair-esque “Look A Ghost In The Eye”) while making time for at least one chant-ready Middle Ages drinking song (“Magic Power”) amidst abject weirdness and breathy balladry (“The Owl’s Escape”).
Mary Timony — “Look A Ghost In The Eye”
Timony teamed up with Smart Went Crazy/Beauty Pill fixture Devin Ocampo for Ex Hex (2005), an album which, in retrospect, lays bare her future path with its unflinching willingness to rock in a straightforward manner. The two traded off on writing duties here. Ocampo’s contributions evince a turbo-charged brute and brawn that screams “late 1990s Touch & Go Records”; they clearly rubbed off on Timony, whose “Hard Times Are Hard” packs rhythmic ‘tude and whose “Return To Pirates” vamps heavily while retaining her melodic signature. The album’s clear standout, though, is “In The Grass,” a sea of iridescent, competing keyboard scales studded with odd, free-associated lyrical islands: Dislocation becomes adventure; Jesus shares space with the Fat Boys; masturbation is revealed as (maybe) the carnal equivalent of (perhaps) writing the song as Timony performs it.
Mary Timony — “In The Grass”
Credited to the Mary Timony Band, The Shapes We Make (2007) is coyly schizophrenic, zapping between semi-cryptic would-be hits (the conversational, lithe “Sharpshooter”; the twinkling “Killed By The Telephone”; the swaggering “Pause / Off”), tunes that could sit comfortably next to Pit Er Pat on playlists (“Each Day”; “Window”), and the eye-rolling trend-slam “Rockman,” which is also a mind-mending Timony guitar clinic.
The Mary Timony Band — “Rockman”
In 2011, Timony joined members of the Minders and then-on-hiatus Sleater-Kinney to form Wild Flag, a band whose eponymous debut piggybacks on the latter’s ferocious The Woods. Timony got her biggest public platform in more than a decade and made the most of it, leading the charge on some of Wild Flag’s finest songs with the weight of a crack band hot on her heels: the fried, majestic “Glass Tambourine” and the terse-to-exhilarated “Something Came Over Me,” whose lyrics suggested that the Wild Flag journey would be a long, explosive one. Given that Sleater-Kinney were secretly on the verge of reforming, this wasn’t to be.
Wild Flag — “Something Came Over Me”
Ex Hex, the trio Timony formed in 2013 with members of the Aquarium and the Fire Tapes, released Rips the following year. The template: efficient, three-minute pop-rock songs reminiscent of 1980s FM radio, with arrow-direct lyrics, crisp hooks, whoooooa-ohs; after hearing “Everywhere” or “Hot And Cold” or “Beast” thrice, it’s possible to hum them in your sleep or how to play them out on your own guitar.
Ex Hex — Waterfall”
For fans who cherish inscrutably enigmatic Timony, energetically mundane Timony can feel a bit like a betrayal of all that’s right and natural — until we recognize and accept that she’s happy, and more successful than she’s been in a long, long time. She’s found a new way to earn a living in a world that’s tougher for musicians than it was when The Magic City or Mountains came out. Ex Hex tour, appear on magazine covers, and likely inspire more wannabe guitarists than Timony herself could ever hope to teach. That’s something, isn’t it?
The Helium reissues are out now via Matador. Mary Timony is playing the music of Helium on tour starting next week. Here are the dates:
06/06 Washington, DC @ Rock & Roll Hotel
06/07 Philadelphia, PA @ Boot And Saddle
06/08 Brooklyn, NY @ Northside Festival – Rough Trade,
06/09 New York, NY @ Mercury Lounge
06/10 Boston, MA @ The Sinclair
06/12 Toronto, ON @ Horseshoe Tavern
06/13 Cleveland, OH @ Beachland Ballroom
06/14 Detroit, MI @ Marble Bar
06/15 Chicago, IL @ The Empty Bottle
09/10 Raleigh, NC @ Hopscotch Music Festival