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Quarantining The Past: Helium's 'The Dirt Of Luck'

While we wait for Wild Flag's new record, let's look back at Mary Timony's finest moment: Helium's excellently dark 'The Dirt of Luck'

Helium: Quarantining The Past: Helium's 'The Dirt Of Luck'

What a backwards rock record The Dirt of Luck is.  Seriously, think about it. Nevermind the double-edge of the title -- there's a mention of good fortune, but really this is just about the grit it coats itself in -- and just sit and listen to this record. 

It's a tricky bit of music. At first, it seems perfectly on the up-and-up, of its time and place, because there's something geographic about Mary Timony's sound. When she was in the all-girl band Autoclave in D.C. -- and their short Discography, released on Dischord, is essential indie rock -- their sound tightened up in the tangled coil of that city's streets, in the camraderie of a tight-knit scene. She was in Boston when Helium made The Dirt of Luck, though, and this sounds like the dingy sludge and icy winds of a Northeastern winter. It's chilly and timeless, brittle with the energy of punk rock but delivered in subtler layers, evoking classic rock and other genres.

From there, even if its feels at home, the record is awfully damn confusing. There's the obvious -- that a band called Helium sounds so goddamn low. This is craggy, subterranean shit. Part of this comes from Timony herself (she often plays in a D-tuning), and part comes from Ash Bowie's thundering bass. Bowie, who's in another great rock band called Polvo, joined the band for this record and the growth in sound from their debut EP, Pirate Prude, to here is immense.

Part of this dark, low sound comes from drummer Shawn Devlin too, though, in another odd reversal. Most of the time, it sounds like Devlin is following Timony's lead. In rock music, where the drummer drives everything forward, lays the powerful groundwork, this seems counter-intuitive. But check "Pat's Trick," the album's opener and first single. See if the stilted high-hat work doesn't make it sound like he's shadowing the other players. He doesn't drop the beat and let them play over it, he plays after them. It happens with the tom-work on "Oh the Wind and Rain" and in the cymbal work on "Silver Angel." For some reason, the guitar and bass seem to come first. They are the foundation, and the drums go on  top of them.

It makes for a bizarre sonic world, but I don't point it out to deride Devlin's playing. In fact, just the opposite. The approach here is jarring, yes, but also brilliant. It adds to the shadowy nature of the songs because it leaves holes in these songs, dark spaces between Timony's buzzing, off-kilter riffs, spaces where Bowie's bass strings can rattle and shake so much you worry he might crack the instrument's neck. Things lighten up from time to time -- "Superball," with its keyboard riff and gliding chorus is a sweet respite -- but mostly this record lives in the darkness, built out of the crags and negative space of its own sound.

It's the perfect backdrop for the unsuspecting power of Timony's vocals. They're hushed for the most part, even deadpan, and rarely raise above the fray of the instruments. But her inflections are masterful, often giving away a sinister edge. The way she repeats "you are the most beautiful thing" on "Pat's Trick" -- leaning hard on that "most" everytime -- shifts it from sweet sentiment to some mix of frustration and obsession. "Baby's Going Underground" is the most epic guitar grind on the record, but it's most memorable moment comes in the lullaby sweetness when Timony sings, ever so sweetly, "Baby' likes it when it hurts like that, million days after the fact." In these moments, The Dirt of Luck is chilling and enthralling. It's power comes in the spaces around its loudest noise, in the way its frames its grimey hooks. Song to song, it never disappoints, constantly surprising us with Bowie and Devlin as an alien rhythm section, Timony's complicated, groaning riffs, and her voice, which if it lacks range more than makes up for it in her uncanny ability with phrasing and intonation. She will let you know, with one half-whispered word, that she is not to be fucked with on The Dirt of Luck.

But as good as each song is, this record also breaks from its contemporaries by feeling like one complete sound. If you listen to it all the way through -- the best way to hear it, by the way -- the songs start to feel like movements. The ebbs and flows, the thick riffs and echoing space, it all feels like some haunted tour. They are songs that often shift between the sky and the earth -- there are as many references to flying here as there are to death -- and the album uses every bit of space between those poles to construct this odd world, one that shifts both wildly (from the chunky rock of "Medusa" to the piano interlude "Comet #9") and with careful subtlety (the scuzzed-out expanse of "Oh the Wind and Rain" to the dusty sway that opens "Honeycomb"). The parts here, for all their gaps and incongruities, fit together seamlessly.

Each song will catch you on its own, which is why "Superball" works so well as a single, but The Dirt of Luck works best as a whole. The power of this album, like so many rock records, doesn't come in quick bursts. In fact, the album rarely works itself past mid-tempo. But this still feels propulsive even as it drags itself through all this sonic muck. The more you dig into its details, the more the album surprises and turns your expectations on their head. This ability to catch you with immediate tunes, only to leave you with a series of questions, is what makes Mary Timony one of our finest rock musicians, and The Dirt of Luck such a lasting record. So even if it gets their by going backwards, the album does what great rock records are supposed to do. It floors you in is own way.

So while you wait for Timony's new record with Wild Flag, her new band with members of the Minders and Sleater-Kinney (more on them next week), go back and check out The Dirt of Luck, see if it doesn't surprise the hell out of you all over again.

Wild Flag is out Sept. 13 on Merge Records.

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Quarantining the Past is an on-going column at Prefix Magazine where we'll discuss albums from the '90s. Records that were important to the decade, albums we overlooked, albums by important bands that don't get talked about enough, albums that get better with age and those that time has been unkind to -- we'll talk about them all, with a new album featured every week. Got an album from the '90s you want highlighted? Let us know in the comments, and don't forget to share your thoughts on the featured album each week.

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