Part brainy guitar pop, part Dramamine evaluation tool, Boston’s Helium served as a vehicle for the fascinating lyrical perspective and detuned, lurching guitar expression of Mary Timony. Her playing, by far the band’s most distinctive feature, nibbles at the edges of post-My Bloody Valentine soundwall, but her string-bending and note refraction incorporate elements of guitar-dependent world music as diverse as Hawaiian slack key and African highlife.
Helium pulls out all the dimension-rending stops on its debut EP: Timony’s wavering guitar shimmers and undulates across the surface of “XXX” and “OOO,” songs that are every bit as distinct as those titles would indicate. When the trio does maintain a degree of linearity, the menace is palpable, as evinced by the severe “I’ll Get You, I Mean It.” The overall effect is adrenalizing and sense-testing — kind of like being forced to walk on a Saran Wrap membrane stretched over a piranha tank.
Timony revamped Helium’s lineup — replacing bassist Brian Dunton (who, like drummer Shawn King Devlin, had been moonlighting from Dumptruck while also playing in Tackle Box) with Ash Bowie of Polvo — for The Dirt of Luck, but her own basic m.o. remained blissfully unchanged. The doubled vocals — usually one track of sweet, childlike lilt undercut with an ominously distorted counterpart-impart a dizzyingly inscrutable character to the proto-Wiccan lyrics of “Silver Angel” and “Medusa,” both of which are furrowed with the scythe-like guitar leads that trail in her wake. Best of all is the opener, “Pat’s Trick,” a distorted, percussive exercise in sexual obsession made riveting by Timony’s fluttering-yet- powerful delivery. The Superball+ EP reprises an album track that surrounds Timony’s wispy vocals with an offbeat pennywhistle-driven melody, adding four otherwise unavailable songs that range from the ridiculous (the Fall-plundering “What Institution Are You From?”) to the sublime (the suitably succubus-like “I Am a Witch”).
Prior to forming Helium, Timony led Autoclave, a Washington DC quartet that mined much the same territory, although Timony had yet to learn the restraint she displays in Helium.
Tackle Box was the brainchild of singer/guitarist/songwriter Greg Kendall; the quartet was completed by Michael Leahy, Juliana Hatfield’s guitarist on Hey Babe. On! is a marvelous pop record, full of strong melodies, crisp playing and witty reference points like “Mark Lindsay’s Ponytail.” Considering hotel life, “Check-Out Time” touches on the transience of existence, but makes a joke of the experience as well. The more diverse and ambitious Grand Hotel, which has no such residential concerns beyond the plangent “Moon Villa,” stops off both on guitar distortion floors (“Grand Hotel”) and inveigling intimate landings (“Whiskey Jag”), delivering the same kind of sturdy material with higher fuzzbox settings and an elevated energy level.
After Helium, Timony released two albums as a solo artist and then relocated back to DC, from whence she had come, and formed a duo with drummer Devin Ocampo of the Medications.