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A few years ago, when rage was all the rage, Mary Timony, singer and guitarist for the Boston-based band Helium, spread breathy layers of female angst over slabs of guitar sludge. But things have changed. While other artists formerly known as angry young women are either donning Versace or becoming parodies of themselves, Timony, her bassist/boyfriend Ash Bowie (who's also a member of Chapel Hill's Polvo) and drummer Shawn Devlin are busy resurrecting prog rock, of all things--and the results are stirring. The Magic City, a new CD in which Helium mixes prog with kraut-style new wave, is the trio's best album to date.
What led the group to this unlikely juncture? "It's a combination of a bunch of stuff," Timony avers. But a key factor, she notes, was that "we decided we liked that sound in general--that Seventies sound."
This approach could hardly be more different than the one utilized on 1994's Pirate Prude and 1995's The Dirt of Luck, which sported distortion on virtually every track. But what once constituted a frontier has become familiar. "We were just tired of it, because it's overdone," Timony says. "So much crappy music--all the music that's really popular, and its association with alternative, alternative being this big thing. It's just done. It's over."
Timony's boredom with fuzz was underlined by her participation in 1995's Wasps' Nest, a collection of twinkling drum-machine delights penned by the Cole Porter of the synth, Stephin Merritt, and credited to the 6ths. "I used to live a block from Stephin, so I just walked over to his house and did it. I never heard about it again until the record came out. And I loved the record."
When it came time to consider the next Helium project, though, the musicians didn't attempt to mimic Merritt. Rather, they moved forward by taking a step back. "Over the last couple of years, when we were coming up with ideas for the record, if there were any old rock bands I personally was influenced by, it was videos of them and not records," she reports. "I was watching a lot of video footage of T. Rex and the Stones and Black Sabbath. Just getting into rock and roll. I've been really into this whole fantasy thing--fantasy in that you imagine this faraway place that takes you away from reality and where you are. And that fascination we had with the videos fit into the whole idea of fantasy, too."
Given such interests, it's no surprise that Timony and Bowie were soon immersed in fey fairy arias and synthesized bombast. But at the same time, they maintained a postmodern distance between themselves and prog. "Ash and I were definitely not listening to, say, King Crimson or something really seriously," Timony insists. "If you hear a reference to bands from the Seventies in our music, it's because we had been listening to it as more of a joke--like, 'Wouldn't it be funny if this song sounded like the Moody Blues?' And then we would try to make it sound like that."
Aiding Helium in this quest was Mitch Easter, the former kingpin of Southern indie rock. A longtime R.E.M. intimate and leader of the combo Let's Active, Easter has been out of the limelight for a while, but he continues to make an impact on modern music as a result of his studio, which is loaded with vintage synthesizers. "Ash had known about Mitch for a long time since he's from North Carolina, and Ash was a big Let's Active fan," Timony relates. "He was Ash's idol. And there were some bands we knew that had recently recorded at his studio. Pavement was there, and Ash went to visit them and realized that the studio was just great."
The band first collaborated with Easter on the EP No Guitars. Issued earlier this year, the disc was Helium's prog aperitif, replete with faux strings and medieval flute toodlings generated by Easter's equipment. The producer's arsenal played an even more substantial role in Magic, Timony says. "There were parts that were written for certain instruments--like, 'It would be nice to have a flute here.' Then, when we got into the studio, it was, 'How are we going to make a flute sound?' And we would look around for a flute sound--and usually it was on a keyboard." Among the gadgets the players used was a Chamberlin--a large cabinet that houses myriad recording devices and is as susceptible to the elements as a cassette left on a dashboard on a hot summer day. "You can definitely hear how old it is," Timony imparts. "Like some of the keys will be louder or the tape will run out or the tape starts late. Definitely, it has a lot of idiosyncrasies."
Far from ruining Helium's songs, such imperfections actually enhance them, as do the tinny timbres yielded by other antiquated contraptions in Easter's possession. "When we first started getting into keyboards, we were into this whole Casio trip that a lot of people were on," Timony admits. "I think that's what made us start getting into it--we liked the sounds on the Casio and that they were completely cheesy." But, she adds, "at this point, we've liked Casio sounds for so long that it's no longer funny."
Helium's earnest embrace of primitive electronica on Magic is contagious: Instead of provoking deprecating snickers, passages as programmed as Pong arouse a curious nostalgia for music long deemed unsalvageable. But at the same time, the band retains its standard guitar-bass-drums lineup, supplementing it with trumpet and violin. "'Lullaby of the Moths' is one of the songs where violins are such an important part," Timony points out. "I actually wrote out the part for two violins, and then we got this guy, and he came and played it. It was kind of ridiculous, because he was a professional and I had made a lot of mistakes--but I did write the music out. It was probably one of the most fulfilling parts of the whole recording process for me." The song also features a "viceroy," which Timony describes as "Ash's made-up instrument. It's like a guitar with all the strings tuned to the same note that he plays with a drumstick."
The lyrics on "Lullaby" and other Magic numbers are a far cry from those found on Helium's previous efforts. The majority of the cuts have prog-friendly settings, such as the fabled Middle Ages or outer space, because, Timony says, "it's just easier to make things up. To make up a completely imaginary scenario is much easier than writing about reality."
Moreover, tunes about castles, dragons and rainbows provided Timony with a nice break from the raw gender-conflict issues that permeated prior releases. "I thought that I was sort of empowering myself by speaking about those sort of things before," she says. "But somewhere along the line I felt that it was not empowering anymore, because of people misunderstanding me--especially in interviews. It never happened with women, but many times I had done hurried interviews with guys and talked about those kinds of things, and then I would read the article, and it was so screwed up. I sounded like this freak--crazy, angry. The worst one was in Minneapolis; I did this really hurried interview on the phone, and I then read the article, and it was so fucked up. It was like, 'Mary Timony thinks she's going to empower herself by going crazy.' I thought, 'Oh, my God, this is so wrong.' So then I decided that I wasn't going to talk about it anymore--because it's useless if it's not being portrayed right.
"I don't want the band to be defined that way anymore," she goes on. "I don't like Joni Mitchell because she's a feminist. I like her because she's a female and because she makes music I can relate to because I'm a female."
By the same token, Timony's current subject matter can't entirely prevent misinterpretations. "I was born of the Devil's victory/But I'm hoping that love will set us free," a couplet from "Revolution of Hearts," seems to allude to Eve's dilemmas, but Timony claims that it actually refers to "coming out of a depression. I was thinking more of that song being totally genderless and being like this spirit in the sky that was coming out of darkness and depression. And love was a religious sort of spiritual love, not like a relationship type of thing."
Timony concedes that her old self resurfaces at least once on Helium's latest--but with a twist. "'Lady of the Fire' is a good old feminist song," she says. "It's about becoming this monster and liberating yourself out of the box you've been pushed into by letting your rage out." But once the heroine is free, her first priority is to "make love to a unicorn." Which, after listening to The Magic City, may strike many listeners as quite an enticing prospect.
Helium, with Cornershop and Syrup USA. 9 p.m. Monday, November 3, Fox Theatre, 1135 13th Street, Boulder, $8.50, 443-3399 or 830-