The release of these reissues of the nearly-complete discography of Helium are perfectly timed. Singer-guitarist Mary Timony has been the center of a small storm of attention lately thanks to her membership in Sleater-Kinney-affiliated Wild Flag and her own angular post-punk group Ex-Hex. And with all things ‘90s being much in fashion of late, it’s as good a time as any to stir up a bit of nostalgic buzz for this trio. And yet what could be just a simple rearview mirror glance on the path to the next hot new thing becomes something startling as you consider how modern these old recordings still sound.
That’s not to say that the trio necessarily sounded ahead of their time during their initial run either. They slotted in nicely alongside Sonic Youth (avowed fans who adapted the riff from Helium’s “Skeletons” for their song “Sunday”) and bassist Ash Bowie’s other band Polvo. You’ll hear familiar fuzzy and strained guitar tones and the same forward-facing production quality—courtesy of Adam Lasus and Mitch Easter—that signal these as ‘90s records. But it all feels somehow displaced from time, as if the band could plop down at any point from the mid ‘60s to today and feel perfectly at home.
At least that was the point that Timony and her longtime drummer Shawn King Devlin eventually reached. (Bowie was preceded by bassist Brian Dunton). The early singles compiled on Ends With And find the group still working in the same punk-inspired rubric that begat Timony’s earlier band Autoclave and her many compatriots in the NW underground scene. They’re fine songs—”Lucy,” found originally on a 1993 7” single, is particularly biting—but alongside the work they did later, they feel like rough drafts.
Helium’s hit their true stride with the recording of Pirate Prude, a 1994 EP captured almost entirely on Ends. It’s a supersonic leap forward both sonically and in terms of how Timony uses magical realism to address sexual politics and personal hurt, as in the opening track “Baby Vampire Made Me.” Using the musical language of ‘70 hard rock, she sings of an emotionally dysfunctional relationship that she regretfully nurtured even as it was “turning me into someone I don’t know.” The rest of the tracks on this mini album are equally explosive and emotionally draining.
Helium only became bolder from there. The trio wrote and played with an alien curiosity, as if they were just now picking up instruments after years of only reading about rock music. Timony’s guitar playing especially sought out moods and tones that edged up to bombast without giving over to its tantalizing gleam. Just listen to how she mixes a slide line and a faint overdriven rhythm line with the ringing melody on “Honeycomb” or the see-sawing dynamics on “Trixie’s Star.”
But it’s her lyrics that, throughout the latter part of this band’s existence, delved even further into a woman’s strengths and despairs, the dual extremes of self-imagery that allows some to think they’re “small like a superball…fragile as an eggshell” (“Superball”) and others to spit and swear and not “care when you call her a whore” (“Honeycomb”).
Those similar sentiments are woven into the language of vintage psychedelia and prog on the group’s final two studio recordings, the EP No Guitars and the full-length The Magic City. Think about how brilliant that is: taking a male-centric genre that prized braggadocious playing over emotion and siphoning it through a feminist mindset. Gone then are wanky solos but the magickal imagery and complex structures remained.
And Timony embraced those joyously. “Leon’s Space Song” reduces a keyboard riff down to its incessantly catchy core and lyrically finds the perfect balance of earthbound concerns and flights of fancy (“Maybe it was all of those nasty things you made me do/like sitting and watching you break through to the other side/saying, ‘I got a rainbow dragon we can ride’”). On “Lady of the Fire,” she sings of sexual desire in fantastical terms (“I was born underground/I got two horns/and I’m gonna make love to a unicorn”) as the music melts and floats like a lava lamp.
Like a lot of bands that attempt to soar to the outer reaches of the musical galaxy, Helium wound up breaking apart on re-entry. That didn’t slow Timony down a bit as she floated through various solo guises and projects that didn’t get nearly the attention that her band did. Now that she’s got our attention with her new work and Matador Records is helping tell the backstory with these reissues, hopefully those will get a much-needed reassessment. Until then, you’ve got plenty of time to dig into these marvelous treasures.