Sharps and Flats: Helium

Sharps & Flats is a daily music review in Salon Magazine

Published October 30, 1997 8:00PM (EST)

Of all the bands currently veering into the not-so-grassy knoll of cornball
pop, Helium has proven itself surprisingly well-suited for that slippery and often muddy slope. "Magic City" has all the usual goofy '70s trappings: catchy guitar riffs with distortion that can only be described as cheery; relentless keyboards, featuring whistling, explosions and
popping spaceship sounds; and most tempos exactly on par with the theme
song to "Starsky and Hutch." Even songs that start down the traditional
rambling guitar-driven Helium path get hijacked halfway through and end up
somewhere between "Austin Powers" and "Moonraker" soundtrack material.

Unbelievably enough, it comes off like a charm. Mary Timony has always
demonstrated a thrilling lack of self-consciousness in her songwriting, and
"Magic City" is her least predictable, most successful effort to date.

Helium was harder to love in the early days. Timony's voice is
unconventionally quiet and airy, and often tends to follow her guitar line
note by note. Plus, Helium could never be described as "tight." Yet they
always managed to offer up a sort of awkward grace that eventually won your
loyalty like a clumsy but affectionate mutt.

On "Magic City," Timony and bassist Ash Bowie, who co-wrote a handful of
songs, unabashedly attack a wide range of styles, melodies and textures.
Like Kate Bush or Fleetwood Mac, Timony seems perfectly comfortable taking
a flying leap from what sounds like the score of "Sweeney Todd" to the
middle of ABBA's "Arrival." And, like Kate Bush or Stevie Nicks, she's
preoccupied with otherworldly imagery -- her songs are littered with
vampires, angels, dragons, stars. But that sarcastic edge in her voice
tells us not to take any of it too seriously. In one of her more
melodramatic tunes, "Cosmic Rays," she suddenly
admits, "I don't really care about this song." With so many devils and
dragons around, it's sometimes a relief to find her glib sense of humor
lurking behind the next corner.

"Aging Astronauts" has a great ominous guitar riff and pleasing
space-travel sounds, a little like Traffic's "Rainmaker." "Medieval People"
is the Human League meets "CHiPs" chase-scene, replete with giddy dance
breaks and explosions. "Ancient Cryme" has vaguely Middle-Eastern chord
progressions and the unforgettable line, "Am I not soft enough for you?"
"Cosmic Rays" sounds like the title suggests, with almost (gasp) Grateful
Dead-like noodling on the mandolin, along with occasional soaring violins
that bring to mind a soundtrack for "The Hobbit."

Sounds like pure torture, doesn't it? That's what makes "Magic City"
so ... well, you know. Combining such a wide range of sounds is terribly ambitious, and, based on
their earlier albums, few would peg Helium as the band to pull it off. Yet
they manage to champion this hellish hybrid of influences into as cohesive
and enjoyable a mix as Beck's "Odelay."

While "Magic City" might not be the Album of the Year, Helium deserves
some serious notice for successfully taking the trend du jour -- nostalgic
electropop -- and crafting it into such an enjoyable dark comedy, starring
Timony as a dreamy, often unapologetically bitter heroine with a
razor-sharp wit. But who else could pull off such glibly silly lyrics as
"All of my friends in L.A. love me more than you"? Helium is a less kind,
less gentle B-52s for the late '90s. What better antidote for the
bubble-gum-flavored sawdust that is the current alternative grind?

By Heather Havrilesky

Heather Havrilesky is a regular contributor to the New York Times Magazine, The Awl and Bookforum, and is the author of the memoir "Disaster Preparedness." You can also follow her on Twitter at @hhavrilesky.

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