The music of Helium occupied a weird space, even in the odd, rudderless years following the end of the grunge wave after Cobain checked out, and before the whole Britpop thing swept in from overseas. Not quite shoegaze -- though a few of us from that camp certainly gravitated to early Helium recordings 'cause of the noise -- and not exactly folk -- though there were folk-y elements to the way front-woman Mary Timony constructed melodies -- the tunes of Helium were odd and wonderful. Skewed things that simultaneously frightened and entranced listeners. Those downright magical early recordings are now collected on the superb new compilation Ends With And, out from Matador Records on Friday.
Ends With And gathers together those early EP releases from the three-piece (Mary Timony, drummer Shawn Devlin, and Polvo bassist Ash Bowie), as well as a few rare live numbers, and a handful of demos. It makes a pretty convincing case for the greatness of this band. But, I suppose that a lot of you reading this already considered this band great. On early cut "Baby Vampire Made Me", one can hear a faint trace of Sonic Youth's earlier explorations condensed into something more college rock, while the career-making "XXX", from the essential Pirate Prude EP, offers up a kind of faux-amateurishness from a Helium clearly finding their own sound. On first listen, one is struck by how simple and disjointed the cut is; I can remember thinking at the time "Do they even know what the fuck they are doing?", as if it was the return of The Shaggs or something. But, of course, like The Ramones, it takes a lot of smarts to sound so simple. On subsequent listens, one hears something closer to what Pavement was perfecting in this era, only slowed down and plucked out precisely on the guitar and bass. And, of course, Mary Timony's distinctive drawl sounded unlike anyone else behind a mic in the first few years of the first Bill Clinton term. Frankly, there's little here on this 19-track release that would clue you into the fact that Timony had just come from a Dischord band (Autoclave) before landing in Helium. The sound is that odd and unique and more space rock than punk rock.
Of course, early single "Hole In The Ground" reveals a brief moment when this band did indeed sound a tiny bit punk-y. Timony here in command in a way that recalls Kim Gordon's triumphant "Bull In The Heather" with Sonic Youth from nearly the same era. Similarly, the superb "What Institution Are You From?" from the "Superball" single remains one of this band's finest moments. Containing more punch than some of the more meandering early Helium numbers, the song unfurls with a sort of sinister vibe reminiscent of Television, only with a worse attitude, while the chorus grounds things in a more conventional way, Timony's vocals briefly even approaching something one would call "pretty" in style. And, of course, a version of "Superball" had to be here. Even in its demo form on Ends With And, the cut reigns as the closest this group ever got to a "Cut Your Hair"-style breakthrough moment.
Having seen this band a few times in 1995 or so, including once with Polvo on the same bill, bassist Ash Bowie a busy guy that night, I can say that Helium were criminally underrated. The records sometimes didn't do the band justice, with the artwork or Timony's vocal style, unfortunately, getting this act lumped in too easily with space-y bands like Stereolab or Pram, or noise-niks like My Bloody Valentine thanks to the fuzzy guitars throughout the material. And yet, what made Helium great was that the trio was unafraid to experiment and push the boundaries of college rock in a very real way, in an era when record labels were still looking for another Nirvana even as grunge was dwindling in importance. The brief early compilation track "Puffin Stars" sounds utterly unlike anything else you were going to hear in the Nineties, for instance, and maybe that was why it was so hard for this band to get the sort of attention they deserved beyond that from certain critics. Listen to what's going on in the subtle "Fantastic Castle", the eerie "Lucky Charm", or the demo of "Ghost Car" included here and revel in what Timony's doing as a guitarist. Combine the risks she's taking there on the instrument, with the skewed melodies of the tracks, and the odd time signatures and perhaps it makes perfect sense now why this was too out there for a college rock audience in the early Nineties who wanted to hear stuff that sounded like Pearl Jam. Helium were, ultimately, an experimental band. That so many of their experiments worked is amazing now.
Ends With And from Helium is both a reminder of how great this band was, as well as a nice addition to all the band's records you probably already have in your library. If you are new to the band, this is a fine place to start as this compilation is a good overview of what made Helium so special. If you are a fan of this band, you still need this for the rarities contained here.
Out on Friday via Matador Records, Ends With And by Helium is one of this Spring's most essential reissues.
[Photo: James Smolka]