Long ago and not so far away (here in Providence, in fact), I used to work at a hotbed for Providence musicians. (Everybody needs a day job, right?) Co-worker Chick Graining (of Scarce) recommended that I make a beeline for one of their headlining shows at local, beloved scuzz pit Babyhead: “This band Helium is opening — keep an eye on them.”
I went. He was 1000% correct, and Helium quickly became a Do Not Miss proposition. I love their debut single; I loved their Pop Narcotic followup even more — it was crystal-clear to me that singer/songwriter Mary Timony had a unique perspective that was all her own.
Fast-forward 20+ years to Helium’s Boston homecoming and it’s even more clear how preternaturally ahead of her time Mary was. That sounds a bit over-the-top as I write it out, but it’s not hyperbole. With the benefit of hindsight, her songs read as a prescient exercise in reclamation — different in tone than Riot Grrl, which just preceded Helium, but well in parallel to sharp feminist critiques of pop culture like Bitch Magazine and Bust, both of which are still going strong.
Mary’s songwriting with Helium was often elliptical, mythological, and rife with metaphor. Song after song tears into the difficulties of carving out your own space: Who am I? How can I belong? How can I negotiate this world?
If the songs sometimes played out like feminist fairy tales — fantastical, prickly and wondrous — the shows themselves were somewhat embattled, and Mary never seemed completely comfortable in the spotlight.
After Helium’s quiet demise (they played their last show in 1998), she embarked on a solo career and continued to teach guitar (she is classically trained), all while pursuing increasingly high-profile collaborations, including an EP and supergroup with Sleater Kinney’s Carrie Brownstein (who called her “Mary Shelley with a guitar”) and a pop/prog project called Ex Hex (ongoing). She even did a few stints as part of Seth Meyer’s house band, replacing fellow shredder Marnie Stern.
All of which brings things full circle to Helium’s return, which also coincided with a retrospective compilation, “Ends with And,” and reissue series from longtime label Matador.
It was truly thrilling to hear Helium favorites like “XXX,” “Superball,” “Leon’s Space Song” and “Pat’s Trick” again — and the band, made up of Timony, Brian Betancourt and David Christian of Hospitality on bass and drums, respectively, as well as Nicole Lawrence on guitar and keyboards, seemed to feel the same way.
Helium’s songs still crackle with a wonderfully weird, operatic quality — resolutely non-linear and tangled epics that weave disparate influences (prog, DC punk, musique concrete) into a truly unique whole. Since Saturday’s show I’ve been revisiting the band’s back catalog non-stop, and it’s as fresh as I remember it. Maybe better, even.
As a real gift to all of us, the encore was a special “double drum” set with Christian and OG Helium drummer Shawn King Devlin (Dumptruck). It was a perfect and fitting finale to a fantastic homecoming. Don’t make it another 20-year wait, Mary!
Leon’s Space Song
All the Xs Have Wings
The Revolution of Hearts, Parts I & II
Lady of the Fire
Encore (with Shawn King Devlin)
Baby’s Going Underground