Helium – Ends With And
Mary Timony has ridden an unusual career arc. A key player in both the Boston and Washington DC DIY scenes, her band Helium was more demanding than Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain, not quite as knotty as Polvo, and featured pummeling guitars rivaling Dinosaur Jr.
After releasing 1995’s second-shelf period classic The Dirt of Luck (on which Polvo’s Ash Bowie plays a prominent role), Timony inexplicably detoured to the prog land of tree sprites on The Magic City. She continued further down that path on the literally titled No Guitars, an EP which swore off her greatest strength. From there she retired the Helium name and embarked on a decade of solo work and low-key collaborations, gradually emerging from the wilderness.
Now pushing fifty, Timony is enjoying her greatest acclaim. Fronting Wild Flag along with Carrie Brownstein in 2011, she was responsible for several highlights on what’s shaping up to be among rock’s all-time greatest one-off albums. The experience seemed to reintroduce Timony to rock’s visceral joys, as she followed up by forming Ex Hex, a trio whose 2014 album Rips delivered the most accessible music of her career.
Matador has seized the moment to reissue on vinyl the Helium catalog. The Dirt of Luck never really fell off the radar, and it’s hard for me to get excited about the Magic City/No Guitars combo so let’s focus on Ends With And, the deep vault set that unearths a healthy share of treasures.
Curiously overlooked from many Helium discographies is Pirate Prude, the band’s debut six-song EP. Ostensibly the non-linear tale of a street hooker murdering her john, it’s arguably the band’s most bracing work. Ends With And opens with its four fully-formed tracks, each creepily-paced, bass and feedback-heavy, and clocking in at over five minutes. Of these, the seething “XXX” leaves the most indelible mark, with Timony’s detached, vaguely disgusted vocal delivery bringing to mind what might have resulted had Kim Gordon fronted her own band during Sonic Youth’s heyday.
Helium were active contributors to compilations and limited-run singles, and Ends With And does a fine job assembling these stray threads. Of particular note is the double whammy of the hard-hitting “Hole in the Ground” and “Lucy,” both of which are far too good to be relegated to a rare Pop Narcotic 7-inch. Adding to the excitement, “Magic Box” nudges the Helium sound toward something approaching alt-country.
Disc 2 of this 69-minute set veers into completist territory – the extensive Dirt of Luck era B-sides are appended here rather than to the proper album, and most of the demos are sketched out on cheesy keyboards, presaging the band’s later direction (one exception is “Leon’s Space Song,” which bests the Magic City version). But Disc 1 is so solid it’s easy to forgive some excess.
This fresh perspective on Helium’s chronology reveals that Timony hasn’t changed as much as it may first appear. Early rockers like “Hole in the Ground” share valuable DNA with her Wild Flag contributions. And if Ex Hex’s windows-down driving vibe is stripped away, there’s not that much distance between its caustic sentiments like “I know how you got that girl” and Pirate Prude’s “That was just a joke a joke about the money/ You’re gonna pay me with your life.” Mary Timony may have sweetened the coating to her recent work, but it retains Helium’s bitter center.
Ends With And