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Helium



Talk about an unmistakable sound. Helium has evolved significantly during nearly a decade of existence, but every step of the way, their distinctive brand of fractured fairytale pop has been impossible to confuse with any other band. Led by the incomparable Mary Timony (though Mary Lou Lord fronted an early incarnation of Helium), the Boston-based trio went from fierce post-riot grrl feminism to a prog rock fascination with castles and dragons, from warped, noisy, punk-derived pop to a kind of new wave-inspired weird science, but through it all, Timony's dry, laconic vocals and dark, idiosyncratic guitar work, not to mention the band's complex and unconventional arrangements, made the band's music undeniably Helium.

The group's more lo-fi, angry, challenging early work -- the singles "American Jean" and "Hole in the Ground" and the Pirate Prude EP -- featured bassist Brian Dunton and drummer Shawn Devlin. After Ash Bowie, the talented guitarist and singer of the now-defunct Polvo (and the still-extant Libraness), replaced Dunton on bass, Helium's music didn't exactly become less challenging, but it did take a quantum leap forward musically. Their fantastic Matador debut full-length, The Dirt of Luck (1995), signaled the changing of Timony's musical direction away from punky noise and towards an ambitiously skewed, droning pop vision which employed more diverse instrumentation and an increasingly sophisticated lyrical vocabulary that seemed to pluck imagery from the fantasy lands of The Chronicles of Narnia and The Lord of the Rings.

Despite the title, the guitars were decidedly present on the subsequent No Guitars EP (1997), alongside a breathtaking array of instruments (organs, flute, banjo, ukelele, horns, strings, you name it) and a still heavier dose of lyrical magical realism. That five-song affair was a breathtaking preview of the genius that was Helium's second album, The Magic City (1997), which followed a few months later. By turns alarming and enticing, The Magic City borrows the dark, alienated keyboard lines of new wave synth-pop groups like Joy Division and Human League, the proto-electronic wankery of Kraftwerk and Neu, the proto-prog guitar jams of early King Crimson, and the Eastern-flavored progressive folk of The Incredible String Band. Despite its host of influences and its Renaissance Faire lyrical mindset, The Magic City feels unquestionably rooted in the late '90s indie aesthetic -- it synthesizes multiple chapters of esoteric rock history into something fresh and futurist. Damaged, fascinating, and impossible to pin down, The Magic City was one of the finest rock albums to come out in the '90s.

That was Helium's last album. However, Timony has gone on to record two new albums under her own name, Mountains (2000) and The Golden Dove (2002), which largely pick up where The Magic City left off.

The studio version of the track "Lucy" appeared on the flip side of the "Hole in the Ground" single. Helium performed this live version of the song on WMBR in Cambridge, MA, as part of the legendary Pipeline! series of live rock performances. The track appears on Pipeline! Live Boston Rock on WMBR, a two-disc compilation documenting the history of the series.