Just got back from teaching music history workshops with Kristen at Act Your Age for Girls Rock Camp Austin, which “rocked.” I will post about what I learned from the experience tomorrow, but I kinda need to recover and eat some dinner. I happened to have a review of Helium’s 1997 album The Magic City in the pocket. I was obsessed with the album a couple of months ago after I snagged a used copy signed by leader Mary Timony during a rediscovery period prompted by the 120 Minutes Archive. So let’s talk about why Helium was an awesome band and why this album exemplifies that. Because, if indeed this decade will revive music from the 90s, I hope those who rediscover indie rock stalwarts like Pavement pay equal consideration to fellow Matador act Helium.
As a proper follow-up to their debut, The Dirt of Luck, and a sonic and conceptual expansion of their murky sound, 1997’s The Magic City tends to be overlooked despite being well-regarded in its time. However, the band’s prog-influenced sophomore (and final) effort is often cited as a fan favorite, perhaps prompting artists like Ben Gibbard to name-check singer/guitarist Timony in Death Cab for Cutie’s “Your Bruise.” The band’s legacy lives in contemporary acts like Austin’s YellowFever. Furthermore, Timony is still active. It may make more sense to revisit The Dirt of Luck, particularly for the inclusion of breakthrough single “Pat’s Trick” and its accompanying music video. But The Magic City is a clear artistic achievement that deserves further consideration.
Prog evokes ideations of the concept album. Yet it’s hard to ascertain what this sophomore effort is about. Some may think the album is about Timony’s then-boyfriend Ash Bowie. Others may consider her lyrics as evidence of Timony’s affinity toward hippie spiritualism, nature’s ephemera, space, Christian and Pagan iconography, and stoner poetry.
Having revisited Joanna Newsom’s auspicious sophomore full-length Ys, which is also heavily shrouded in symbolic language, it’s still a jolt when she makes mention of an “awfully real gun” amidst the romantic turmoil of “Only Skin.” Similarly, it’s shocking how often the real world intrudes in Timony’s lyrics. Opening track “Vibrations” opines about astrology while reminding the listener that she’s always available for a chat on the phone. Single “Leon’s Space Song” finds her telling an adversary that her Los Angeles friends like her better. “Aging Astronauts” includes weary mention of perennial air travel. “Ancient Crymes” reveals how Timony finds power in being rude and that she’s down for a party. That Timony is able to incorporate the spiritual realm into the mundane is no small feat. She conveys this in large part through the evasive yet surprisingly expressive qualities of her deadpan alto.
The Magic City also reveals itself to be a relic of the album’s cultural wane. Though some carry the mantle of the full-length, less care has been given to sequencing and cohesion. This cannot be said of this album. There’s a concerted effort to project grandeur, primarily through Timony’s virtuosic guitar playing on songs like the 8-minute opus “Revolution of Hearts Parts 1 and 2.” It repeats musical themes and returns to certain lyrical images while subtly suggesting variance with a diverse assemblage of instruments and compositional stylings, indicating the era’s interest in hybridity.
Instrumentals like “Medieval People” also suggests the band had more in common with agit-pop acts like Brainiac (another band in need of a revival) than Yes. However, I’d like to think one of Helium’s key contributions to indie rock in their brief career was that these acts could co-exist on one beguiling album.