The Fantasy Worlds of Mary Timony

Last week I went to a live show by myself for the first time to see Ex Hex, Mary Timony’s latest band whose first album, Rips, was my favorite of last year. I don’t really love shows for a lot of reasons, so if I ever go to one, it’s a fairly ringing endorsement of the people involved. In this case, Timony has been one of my favorite artists for years, and it was worth putting up with all the dumb parts of live shows to see Ex Hex’s set.

Timony is having a bit of a resurgence in popularity lately, first as a member of Wild Flag who released one great album in 2011, and now as a member of Ex Hex, who played to a packed house on a Monday night. This comes about 20 years after her initial peak as frontwoman of Helium. Timony initially made a name for herself in that band playing the kind of noisy, guitar-driven indie rock that was common at the time, but she separated herself from the pack with her dark feminist-leaning lyrics and imagery, which was showcased in music videos for songs like “XXX” from 1994’s Pirate Prude EP and “Pat’s Trick” from 1995’s The Dirt of Luck.

Those early Helium albums hold up as some of the best rock music of that era, but Timony’s career gets more interesting after them. In 1997, the band moved in a different direction with the No Guitars EP, which fused Timony’s love of progressive rock and fantasy with their indie rock sound. They expanded on this later that year with The Magic City, a semi-concept album with a medieval fantasy theme and lyrics about dragons, space, and various other celestial topics.

The Magic City has consistently ranked among my favorite albums, and one that always makes me get on my soapbox, since I think it’s so woefully underappreciated. I remember it being one of the first albums that really showed me the power music could have as a form of escape: Timony crafted a complete world of her own, and when I listened to The Magic City, I felt like I was there. It has this mystical, strange, dark feeling I’ve never really heard in other music, while also still functioning as a rock album with real song-craft.

But while they were well-reviewed at the time, No Guitars and The Magic City have mostly fallen by the wayside, even among the relatively small niche of people who are still discussing Helium. When they are mentioned, it’s often just as a contrast to Helium’s earlier music: “their early stuff is great, but you can skip everything else.” And I think there is a general perception that Timony wasn’t playing to her strengths and indulging in random flights of fancy instead of making the music she was known for that people liked.

This criticism would dog her even more after Helium broke up and she continued to follow this fantasy theme on her first two solo albums, 2000’s Mountains and 2002’s The Golden Dove. While The Magic City had the medieval fantasy theme, parts of it still resembled music from a traditional guitar-driven rock band. When she went solo, Timony went even further away from her trademark guitar playing, instead often relying on piano and other unorthodox instrumentation, as well as singing with breathy and soft vocals compared to her more forceful Helium persona. The reaction to Mountains is perhaps best surmised by an old Pitchfork review, which gave it a 4.7 and at the end practically begged for Timony to get back to playing her guitar like she did with Helium. The Golden Dove didn’t seem to fare much better, and both these albums are virtually ignored now. Timony eventually returned to more traditional indie rock on 2005’s Ex Hex and now as a member of the band with the same name, playing the type of music most people want to hear.

I obviously am a big fan of Ex Hex, and it is fun to see Timony playing upbeat, happy music while being in the spotlight again. But there is a big place in my heart for this stretch of weird fantasy albums, which I think are total self-contained genius — moody, mysterious, fantastical, and truly individual. They fit into the traditional mold of fantasy literature, with songs steeped in metaphor as imaginary elements often stand in for real life struggles. At first, I found them difficult to listen to because they were so strange and challenging, but those traits are why I find myself coming back to them, since there is always something new to discover.

What I love most about these albums is how deeply uncool they are — few artists have spent this much energy pursuing such an obviously unmarketable vision. Progressive rock is often a punching bag for indie rock snobs, and the nerdy Dungeons-and-Dragonsy lyrics and references to animals like doves, cats, and horses made it pretty easy to dismiss her music in the way that old Pitchfork review did. But they are the albums Mary Timony wanted to make, and are an honest reflection of who she was at that time. Given Timony’s early success with Helium, there is something powerful and even inspiring about completely changing it up and making these albums, even at the obvious risk of losing her “cool factor” and alienating a reasonable chunk of her old fans. I’ll pretty much always have time for artists who really try to do something new with their music and don’t give a crap about all the other distractions.

This all gave me kind of a weird feeling when I went to the Ex Hex show — it was strange to see such a big crowd when I feel that Timony’s music has been criminally overlooked. And I couldn’t help but wonder how many people there had even heard Mountains or The Golden Dove (maybe I should have gone around and asked). Ex Hex put on a great show and are one of the best straight-forward rock bands out there right now, but I think Timony’s true legacy lies in these seldom-heard, strange fantasy albums — and the fact that she made them at all is why she will always be one of my favorite artists.

Wild Flag

If you’ve been reading this blog from the beginning (which I can only hope you have been, for continuity reasons), you may have noticed that there’s been a distinct lack of actual new music on it.  This is sort of intentional:  While I’ve actually liked 2011 quite a bit and have been making a conscious effort to listen to a lot of new stuff, I still think that something has been missing from current music.  I’ve grown a bit jaded about how most of the hyped bands of the day all seem to chart the same influences, to be following the same basic formula, and constantly living in the past.

Enter Wild Flag, a four woman supergroup consisting of singer/guitarist Carrie Brownstein and drummer Janet Weiss from Sleater-Kinney, Mary Timony from Helium and a solo career, and Rebecca Cole of the Minders.  Those names probably don’t mean a whole lot to many people reading this, but for me and many others its a dream collaboration, a veritable Traveling Wilburys of indie rock goddesses.  From day one, the band has had a massive amount of hype and expectations from rabid Sleater-Kinney fans, the kind like me who think rock music has been circling the drain since the band went on indefinite hiatus in 2006 following their colossal swan song, “The Woods.”

The expectations for Wild Flag are expected, but also unfair.  In reality, there’s no way the band could capture the unique chemistry and passion that defined Sleater-Kinney.  However, their debut album, which is streaming on NPR, is nonetheless an immensely satisfying collection of tunes that fills many of the gaps left empty by today’s indie kids.

See, Wild Flag make rock music.  Not “indie” rock or “noise” rock or whatever other lame qualifiers people seem to put in front of it now.  This is fun, energetic rock music that is never boring, and in today’s musical climate that qualifies as a revelation.  It doesn’t have the urgency of Sleater-Kinney or the dark combativeness of Helium; rather, it’s a pure, unpretentious showcase of everything that rock can offer from four women who know a lot about it.

A common knock on supergroups is that they’re more a collection of individuals than a cohesive band.  Wild Flag defies that, as they’re instantly able to craft a unique sound that separates themselves from their previous bands.  It’s a diverse collection of songs, from the almost power pop lead track and first single “Romance” to the woozy psychedelia of “Glass Tambourine”.  Brownstein and Timony mostly trade vocals and harmonies, and each brings a different energy to each song.

While the hype around Wild Flag has mostly surrounded the Sleater-Kinney semi-reunion, it’s actually Timony who may be the band’s MVP.  In the later days of Helium and the beginnings of her solo career, Timony flirted with being sort of an indie fantasy pixie girl, as she sang about magic and dragons and played quirky songs full of lush instrumentation.  She doesn’t do that on Wild Flag (although she does sneak a “dragonslayer” reference into “Electric Band”), but her more laid back, mystical qualities make a nice foil for Brownstein’s hyperactive wildness.  It’s illustrated on album closer “Black Tiles”, my favorite song so far, and the only one where they exchange lead vocals and put that duality on full display.  Both are also tremendously gifted guitar players and are able to rip a lot of memorable riffs and solos in each song.

Of course, Wild Flag is also anchored by Weiss, who continues to prove that she’s arguably the best rock drummer in music today.  I know absolutely nothing about drumming, but I can still tell that Weiss is really, really good at it, and she brings a ton of life to each song with her thunderous playing.  Rebecca Cole (who I’m mostly unfamiliar with) also gives the songs some extra bounce with her keyboards, which add an extra dimension that the group’s previous bands didn’t have.

In the end, Wild Flag meets their lofty expectations and provides an absolute treat for Sleater-Kinney fans like me that were too busy failing at life to get into them before they went on hiatus.  But beyond that, it’s possibly the most refreshing album of the year so far — a much needed shot of energy and life into the increasingly dull music landscape.

Helium – The Magic City

I love departure albums.  There’s just something beautiful to me about artists following their muse wherever it takes them, regardless of how many supposedly loyal fans they piss off in the process.  And as a listener, artists that are always growing and evolving are much more interesting to listen to than ones that simply make the same kind of songs over and over again.

This love of departures and change may be part of why I have such a deep love for Helium’s 1997 album “The Magic City”.  Calling it a departure would be an understatement:  It’s a journey into a completely different universe.

Helium made a fairly minor name for themselves in the mid-90s with an angular brand of indie rock led by Mary Timony, whose lo-fi guitar heroics and witty, feminist-slanted lyrics gave the band a unique edge.  However, Helium never quite caught on with a large audience, partly because they weren’t quite as aggressive as the media-hyped riot grrrls and weren’t as accessible as other female-fronted alternative rock bands of the time.  Their first full length, 1994’s “The Dirt of Luck” showcased the sound that Helium is still largely known for — part Sonic Youth, part Pavement, part riot grrrl.

Having gained a decent following with that album and some EPs, Helium returned in 1997 with a different sound entirely, as they combined the lo-fi indie rock of the 90’s with progressive rock from the 70’s.  The first hint of it was the excellent “No Guitars” EP released earlier in the year, and it culminated with “The Magic City.”  The simple guitar rock of “The Dirt of Luck” was replaced by more complex songs that featured a wide array of instruments, including harpsichord, sitar, and keyboards.  Gone were the biting, feminist themes, replaced by lyrics that are more indebted to J.R.R. Tolkien than Kathleen Hanna, with references to dragons, medieval people, and other fantasy themes.

“The Magic City”, like many departure albums, sounds horrific on paper.  But of course, it’s all in the execution, and part of what makes “The Magic City” such a brilliant album is how fully realized Timony’s vision is.  For the duration of the album’s 52 minute run time, you really feel like you’re in some sort of magic, medieval city (there’s even an instrumental song called “Medieval People” that comes complete with bomb sounds).

I can only imagine how baffled Helium fans were when they first listened to “The Magic City”, and, to an extent, I think many of them still are.  But part of the album’s greatness is just how different it was from everything else at the time, and how nothing has come particularly close to it since (although The Decemberists album “The Hazards of Love” comes to mind).  This is a completely unique, brilliantly quirky album that is often beautiful and dark at the same time.

It doesn’t start off too strange, as the opener “Vibrations” is probably the song that most resembles the old Helium on the album.  But after that, things get weird in a hurry.  “Leon’s Space Song” is one of the best songs of Helium’s career, with references to riding rainbow dragons culminating in a trippy instrumental coda.  “Ocean of Wine” is slightly more straight-forward rock, but continues with the fantasy lyrics and proggier sound.

There’s a wide array of sounds on “The Magic City”, which helps the band paint an entire picture of their medieval fantasy land.  “Revolution of Hearts Parts 1 & 2” is the closest Helium comes to directly channeling the 70’s progressive rock they were influenced by, complete with arena rock guitars and a six minute instrumental freakout.  While Helium had previously sounded brash and abrasive, songs like “Lullaby of the Moths” and  “Cosmic Rays” are more fragile and beautiful, with swooping string sections that sound like they belong in a movie climax.

While “The Magic City” certainly seemed like a crazy idea, the band is able to realize their ambitions and craft an album that sounds different from everything else, but at the same time is identifiably Helium.  Like with all progressive rock, there was the risk of sounding over-indulgent, but for the most part the array of instruments and quirky sounds are vital for creating the vision that Mary Timony had in mind.  Helium split after “The Magic City”, with Timony continuing to make weird  fantasy music on solo albums like “Mountains” and “The Golden Dove”.  But she was never as quirky, compelling, and mysterious as she was here.

In many ways, the album is a lost indie classic:  It doesn’t show up on critics “best of” lists and even among Helium fans it is likely their least popular work.  But for the small group of people who are able to find the album and appreciate what it’s trying to do, “The Magic City” is a classic album that has few peers in indie rock when it comes to its ambition and scope.  It’s a massively underrated album by possibly the most under appreciated bands of the 90’s, and is very much worth seeking out.