“Dirty” is the perfect rock-and-roll adjective, loaded with nasty connotations. Dirt in its many senses pops up throughout Helium’s debut LP, The Dirt of Luck (Matador). “These new songs are all about hoping for a beautiful self or place to live,” says Mary Timony, singer and lead guitarist. “But in actuality, people are dirty and gross.”
By the time Timony formed Helium in Boston in 1992, she had years of musical experience under her belt. A junior high crush on Boy George led to a new wardrobe — Culture Clash buttons, multicolored hair ribbons, bowler hats — and a desire to play music. Timony picked up a guitar at 14 and studied theory throughout high school and college. Around 1989, she met Christina Billotte, who currently fronts the band Slant 6. Together, they formed Autoclave, an all-girl foursome that predates the riot grrrl revolution of the D.C. punk scene.
“A lot of my teenage friends were boys in hardcore bands,” Timony remembers. “Everyone was doing this macho music.” In contrast, Timony’s Autoclave compositions were melodic, though her formal training had little to do with it. “I’m just not one of those people who gets anything out of joining some system that’s already been formed,” she explains. “Music theory helps me see why something is wrong when it is wrong, but I only use about two percent of what I learned.”
The Dirt of Luck moves differently than other rock records, with a hip-grinding, light-headed sexiness unheard of since My Bloody Valentine’s innovative 1988 LP Isn’t Anything. Timony’s voice shifts from a fashionably bored strut in its lower registers to a woozy stagger when it gets high (usually in the choruses). She stresses the physicality of language, teasing out the airiness of vowels, then hissing and clicking on consonants, making them shiny and hard.
Backed by bassist Ash Bowie and drummer Shawn Devlin, Timony frequently opts for unconventional time signatures. But while her compositions are a departure from the straightforward approach of many male artists, a word like “feminine” doesn’t do justice to the versatility of her guitar work. On most songs, she weaves at least three separate tones (high and low) and textures (soft and hard) in and out of each other. These range from the Middle Eastern whine of “Heaven” to the medieval jaunt of “Oh the Wind and Rain” to the lazy blues of “Honeycomb” (which sounds like Mazzy Star with a personality) to the distorted power chords of “Pat’s Trick.”
The metamorphoses match Timony’s fluid approach to identity. On last year’s Pirate Prude EP, she tried on, then discarded, a different stale sex-role metaphor — woman as candy, woman as toy — with each line, plowing through 10 or 20 in a single song. On Dirt, she breaks free from these molds, creating her own mythical — and sometimes monstrous — personae.
“Skeleton” kicks off like a soundtrack to a spooky movie, with guitars that approximate the clanging of iron chains, the ticking of timepieces and the creak of rusty doors. The sound effects fall silent for a split second and Timony’s voice makes its entrance. “Did I tell you?” she teasingly whispers, then lists off her imaginary attributes: “Ten million fingers,” lips “redder than Lucifer” and hair “up in curlers.” A similar mix of super and natural dominates “Medusa,” a slinky, sinister relative of the Breeders’ “Cannonball.” Timony prays to a goddess figure by chanting a litany of things both beautiful and deadly: “The hiss of a rattlesnake/ The body of a black lake.”
Like the most transcendent female artists making rock music today — Kristin Hersh, P.J. Harvey — Timony is an original guitarist whose archetypal lyrics move beyond the tired symbolism of virgin/whore/plastic doll. Of course, each of these musicians is quite distinct: Hersh and Harvey share a religious intensity, but the former’s organic wisdom is at odds with the latter’s burlesque gender play. Bouncing from one simile or metaphor to another, Timony’s notion of self is far more fickle. She compares herself to a superball, on the song of that name, then becomes “fragile like an eggshell” and “mad as hell” before the chorus has even finished. While such free association frequently yields silly results, there’s an immediacy to this figurative imagery that literal telling cannot match.
Friendly and funny, Timony is a rare breed of songwriter — one willing to discuss her cryptic lyrics. The problem is, the explanations she gives often complicate matters instead of clarifying them. Asked to dissect a song, she’ll groan, laugh at the absurdity of what’s about to come, then trudge ahead anyway, adding meaning upon obscure meaning. After tracing the flower symbolism of “Pat’s Trick” back to a gardening experience with her brother, she cuts to the chase: “I definitely have this psychological tendency to build my own reality.”
This proclivity is both a blessing and a curse. Having isolated one of Timony’s stranger backing vocals on a cassette, a former member of Helium once embarrassed her by playing it during a car ride. “Part of the reason I used to have a sad persona in Helium was the band’s dynamic,” she says. “It’s hard when you’re the only person who has any musical ideas.” Thankfully, the group’s current lineup is more cohesive: Bowie contributes keyboard sounds to a number of tracks, and Devlin’s unconventional rhythms enhance the music’s drama. Six months in the making, The Dirt of Luck is meticulously layered, yet possesses the spontaneous spark of a live recording.
Referring to death and rebirth, Dirt takes off from the last composition written for Pirate Prude, which moved in reverse chronological order from present-tense anger to past unhappiness. But whereas that song, “Baby Vampire Made Me,” responds to misunderstanding with murderous vengeance, the lyrics on Dirt find confidence, even pride, in oddity. “On this record I try on different personalities and go to different places in my head, but they’re all places I want to go to,” Timony notes.
At times, her hopes take on a spiritual quality. Timony cites feminist theologian Mary Daly as an influence; “Medusa” is an ode to an imaginary female superpower. “I’m praying to her and asking her to fix me, make me right,” Timony says. “It might sound like I’m going crazy, but I’m going to be happy when I get there.” Perhaps that’s Helium’s appeal: When Timony goes crazy, you’re happy to come along for the ride.