The 12 (or so) Records of Xmas: Helium – The Dirt of Luck

[a.k.a. #5 of However Many I Care to List, in No Particular Order: Albums That I Have Listened To Both Intermittently And Incessantly, That I Imagine I Will Continue To Listen To Periodically For The Remainder Of My Life, Which I Consider To Be The Seminal Works Of (Or Most Accessible Entry Points To) Musical Artists Whom I Believe Have Been Woefully Underrated And Criminally Underrepresented In The Modern Music Canon At Large, And Which Also At Some Point While Playing I Have Very Likely Been Asked To Turn Down or Turn Off]

Well, by now it’s more than apparent that in addition to a female vocalist fixation, I’m a bit stuck on the music of the 90’s as well… I’m gonna put that down to the nature of the list I’m making here, in that the albums I want to list are ones I’ve lived with for a long time and haven’t tired of. Not that it really matters one way or the other, but I do make a point of seeking out new and newly-released music on a pretty regular basis (peace sign out to Spotify’s generally spot-on recommendation algorithm), while still generally steering clear of the kind of over-produced cookie-cutter corporate pop that saturates KISS FM’s airwaves on any given day, because, man… Life is too short to subject myself to that noise.

This kind of Helium doesn’t just affect your voice, it makes your whole MIND higher…

Far more preferable noises: those made by eternally underground lo-fi rock goddess Mary Timony. Hailing from Washington, D.C. and first emerging as co-leader of the short-lived all-female math-punk quartet Autoclave, Mary found her way to Boston and joined the newly-formed Chupa, which, after a series of lineup changes, became Helium in 1992.

The band quickly produced a pair of singles and their first EP, Pirate Prude, a fully-formed half-hour of discordant, disaffected dream-pop with oblique lyrics that, if I’ve come to understand correctly, tell the story of a pregnant prostitute bitten by a vampire… in reverse. Yeah.

I first became aware of Helium in October of 1993, opening for Liz Phair (another perennial favorite of mine, easily guessed) at CBGB & OMFUG. They performed the entirety of Pirate Prude, and I have to admit, hearing it for the first time in that live context, I didn’t instantly get it. But I was curious enough to give their music another chance, when videos for songs from their first full length, The Dirt of Luck, began to appear on MTV (toward the end of the era when they were still playing primarily music videos).

This is not how one assumes the line “flower of life, bird of spring, you are the most beautiful thing” will generally be sung…
I’m fragile like an eggshell / I’m mad as hell

Taken individually, the newer singles (“Pat’s Trick,” “Superball”) were punchier, more easily accessible, suggesting a band like The Breeders or Belly, but the album as a whole is a darker, stranger trip (“Baby’s Going Underground,” “All the X’s Have Wings”), a sonic tour through a dilapidated brownstone haunted by the specters of Patti Smith and Debbie Harry, which Mary does her best to dispel, or perhaps smother, with her might-be-stoned vocals and her singular, angular guitar playing. This one is close enough to my heart that “Honeycomb” has become a staple cover in my own sets.

Mary would go on to explore modal, somewhat Medieval themes on her next (equally compelling) opus, The Magic City (which includes the lo-fi prog epic “The Revolution of Hearts Pts I and II,” as well as an instrumental explicitly titled “Medieval People,” seemingly a sonic illustration of the inevitable march of technological progress, trampling innocent festivities and ending abruptly with the sounds of lasers and explosions). After that, she disbanded Helium to work on experimental solo albums and form new bands, eventually including the one-off all-girl supergroup Wild Flag, and her current touring rock outfit, EX HEX.

Wild Flag: Rebecca Cole, Carrie Brownstein, Janet Weiss, and Mary Timony

Clear lines of influence can be drawn from Mary’s work to Warpaint, Cherry Glazerr, Colleen Green, La Sera, or any number of other contemporary indie rockers. In 2017 Matador remastered and re-released all of Helium’s records, including a new rarities collection Ends With And, and Mary embarked on a tour, playing Helium songs for the first time in 20 years. As you might expect, I was sure to snag some tickets 😉

Ex Hex: Betsy Wright, Mary Timony, and Laura Harris
I don’t usually care much about getting things signed, but you can bet the jacket of my vinyl says “Mary” on it.
Mary Timony Plays Helium in 2017
Yes, that is me, totally geeking out, while Mary, having just torn up the stage at the Troubadour (and received a full line of well-wishers before I got to the front), is ready for some well-deserved rest.

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