Tag Archives: Helium

Recapping Hopscotch17 Day Four

As you all know, I was at the Hopscotch Music Festival all weekend. It was the eighth year of the festival, and for the first time, the festival went all the way into Sunday night. I’m exhausted, but I had a great time.
Read my Thursday recap here, my Friday recap here, and my Saturday recap here.

All of Sunday’s action took place at Red Hat Amphitheatre, so there was no bouncing around to do. It started early, though, and it made for a long day. Oddly enough, staying in one place was more exhausting than moving around a lot.

After checking out of the hotel, I got downtown around 12:30 hoping to grab some lunch at my favourite spot before heading to Red Hat. Unfortunately, they were totally slammed and there was no chance of me getting in there, even at the counter. Sure I could have gone any number of other places, but I decided to head on in to Red Hat and just get a hot dog there.

No One Mind

The music started at 1:15 with a band from Greensboro called No One Mind. I had never heard of them. Their bio calls their sound psych pop, but I think it’s more like post-punk. They were loud and fast and decked out in all black. I liked them. Unfortunately, there wasn’t much memorable about them.

Jenny Besetzt

Next up was the Raleigh post-punk band Jenny Besetzt. They used to call Greensboro home, and they’ve played at Hopscotch at least three different years. They used to be more of a shoegaze band, but they shifted gears, and either way, I like what they do. I’ve always loved their set. Also, every time I see them, I can’t help but think how much their frontman John Wollaber looks like The Rural Alberta Advantage frontman Nils Edenloff. I could go on and on about the RAA, their lineup change and their forthcoming new album, but this isn’t about the RAA.

Dylan Baldi of Cloud Nothings

Next was the Cleveland punk rock band Cloud Nothings. I only have one of their records, and I don’t really know much about them, but this was still high on my list of band to see this weekend. I loved their set. They were really tight and the sound was pretty great. I don’t know if it was intentional, but the bass was heavy in the mix, and I could barely hear the second guitar. No matter, because they were all killing it.
Apparently, the fellas were on a very strange tour. They had been in Butte, Montana on Friday. Then Los Angeles on Saturday. Then Raleigh on Sunday afternoon. That’s a very strange travel itinerary.
I thought they were leaving about ten minutes of their time on the table, but they played a long bit at the end that seemed to have some element of improvisation. I’m not familiar enough with their catalog to know what song it was or if any of it was improvised. No matter what, it was really good.

Mary Timony and Nicole Lawrence

“Mary Timony plays Helium” was next. This was the thing that I was probably the most anticipatory about for the entire festival. Mary Timony is a sort of indie rock goddess. I loved her first band Autoclave. I was a HUGE fan of Helium. The Pirate Prude EP (1994) and the The Dirt of Luck LP (1995) are two of my favourite releases from that glorious decade. In fact, I’ve often said that Pirate Prude is perfect. PERFECT. Their only other album The Magic City (1997) didn’t resonate as much with me, but I still liked it a lot. Also, for some reason, I never fell in love with the Mary Timony solo stuff. Additionally, I’ve never really given her new band Ex Hex much of a chance, but I know that they’re well-liked.
Although I never saw Helium, I did get to see Mary Timony when she was a member of Wild Flag, and that was spectacular. I really wish that band had made more than just that one record.
Anyway, I was very excited to see these Helium songs being played. I kind of wish she had reunited the old band, but she recruited two guys from the band Hospitality and Nicole Lawrence from the band Iyez.
I was hoping for a few songs from Pirate Prude, but I think there was just one. And just a few from The Dirt of Luck. No matter, because it was a really good set.

Mount Moriah

Next up was Mount Moriah. This country-flavoured indie rock band from Durham is fronted by Heather McEntire. She’s a small woman with a big voice and a ton of talent. She’s been in punk bands, and she’s made other types of music, and she’s very quietly become a member of Angel Olsen’s band. She’s most known, though, for being the front of Mount Moriah. In nearly every story that’s written about the band or about her, there’s a comparison to a young Dolly Parton. McEntire’s songwriting is great, but the comparison is mostly about her voice. That’s to say that her voice is big and muscle-bound when she needs it to be, but soft and supple at other times. While she’s the undisputed star of the show, the guitar work of Jenks Miller shouldn’t go unrecognized. He’s recorded a bunch of stuff under his own name and with the band Horseback, but this is his meal ticket.
I had never actually seen Mount Moriah before, so it was a real treat. And they were fantastic. They were scheduled to play for 50 minutes, but they left about 10 minutes on the clock.

Cass McCombs Band

Next was the Cass McCombs Band. The alt-country/alt-rocker from San Francisco has been around since the early 2000s and has put out a bunch of records since then. He’s sort of a big name, and he’s shared the stage with some enormous names, but I had never listened to anything by Cass McCombs. I didn’t know what to expect and I didn’t know any of his songs, but the band played well. The only song I recognized was their variation on the traditional folk song “Cuckoo”. By the end of the set, I was starting to fade, and I wondered if I was even going to make it to the end of the Angel Olsen set.

Angel Olsen

Finally, at 8:00, the finale of the festival was the much-anticipated set by Angel Olsen. I’m a really big fan, and I had only seen her once before. That was at the 2013 Hopscotch festival, where she played a mesmerizing solo set. I must say that even though I love the newest album, my first impression of it was that it’s too polished. Seems like she’s trying hard to cross over to mainstream. Maybe she will. I thought the same thing of the sound and presentation of her set last night. It was really big. Granted, it was in the big amphitheatre, but I still prefer for the sound to be less big and more like an intimate show. That said, it was a great set with a mixture of older and new stuff. There were even a couple of brand new songs. Just as she was the time I saw her before, she was a little bit giggly and a little chatty. I like that. It’s real. It’s more “real” than the big stage production values. I won’t say that I was disappointed, but it didn’t quite meet my very high expectations. Of course my patience may have been tested because I was very tired after a long week of moving from Greensboro to Durham, then immediately heading out the door for Hopscotch.

I had a great time at the festival, but I sort of wish they hadn’t added that fourth night of shows. Although I went to bed early last night and had absolutely nowhere I needed to be today, I’m still completely wiped out.

1.4.13 — “Short Version” by Wild Flag

Wild Flag

If you only listen to one song tonight, make it “Short Version” by Wild Flag (2011, from the album Wild Flag).

Wild Flag is an indie/punk rock supergroup that doesn’t really have a home base. The members are Carrie Brownstein (vocals, guitar, Mary Timony (vocals, guitar), Rebecca Cole (keyboards, vocals) and Janet Weiss (drums, vocals).
You may know Brownstein and Weiss as two-thirds of the seminal girl punk band Sleater-Kinney. You also know Carrie as being “Carrie” from the “deep cable” show Portlandia. You might also know Carrie from her early 90s band Excuse 17. As I said, you know Janet Weiss from being in Sleater-Kinney, and you may also know her from being in Quasi with her ex-husband. You know Mary Timony from being the front of Helium, and from fronting her own eponymous band. Some of you even know her from way back when she was in Autoclave, way back in 1991. Finally, you might know Rebecca Cole from The Minders.

When I first heard that this band was forming, I was extremely excited. I’m a big fan of S-K, and also of Helium. I can’t lie. I’d never heard of Rebecca Cole, who was the drummer in The Minders. I’d never heard of that band, but it turns out that they were “associated with”, but not technically “part of” the Elephant Six Collective (Neutral Milk Hotel, Music Tapes, Olivia Tremor Control…).

About eight months before they released their debut album, and in fact before they had released anything, Wild Flag went on a North American tour in February and March of 2011. They played in Chapel Hill at the Local 506, but on the same night, Sharon Van Etten was playing at King’s in Raleigh. It was a tough call to make, and it was a call that I ended up second-guessing myself about, but I chose the Wild Flag show. Even up to the night of the show, I considered eating (or selling) the Wild Flag ticket and changing my plans. It turned out that Wild Flag was a brilliant, sold-out show. Nobody in the audience knew any of the songs, but it didn’t matter. It was good times. A year later, when I finally got my chance to see Sharon Van Etten play, I told her that story and she said something like “I would have done the same thing”.

Like Sleater-Kinney, there’s no bassist in Wild Flag. In Sleater-Kinney, Carrie and Corin Tucker would both tune their guitars the unorthodox key of C#, and Carrie would play down on the “high” end of the fretboard. This gave an auditory illusion that there was a bass in the mix. Wild Flag doesn’t use that trick, but Cole handles the low stuff on the keyboards. Sometimes, like on tonight’s song, it sounds very much like a bass guitar, but it’s just bass keys.

If I’m honest, I’m not really in love with the Wild Flag album. Everybody in the band has made records that I love, (well…, Brownstein, Weiss, and Timony anyway..), but this one just doesn’t fall like that. I like the songs, and they’re fun, but I don’t “love” them.

That said, tonight’s song is one of my favorites from the album.

“Short Version” by Wild Flag

I love the start of this song. After Cole’s bass keys solo intro, the whole thing goes ballistic at 0:08. I love the crash of that first wave, and the undertow that follows. Those first ten seconds are really wild and it’s really flaggy. And if you’ve seen this band or Sleater-Kinney live, you know that they have a great time. It goes along like that for the first half of the song. At 1:45, the song breaks into what you think might be a bridge, but it turns out that there’s two parts to the song. I “like” the second part, but I wish they’d kept the first part going for the whole 3:34.

I’ve got lots of other writing (year-end list) to do, so I’m just going to leave it at that.

Please buy Wild Flag in your choice of physical (LP or CD) or digital (FLAC or MP3) format from the Merge Records web store here. Remember that there’s free shipping on all US orders!

October 15 — “I’ll Take You Down” by Autoclave


If you only listen to one song tonight, make it “I’ll Take You Down” by Autoclave (1991, from the album Autoclave)

Autoclave was a short-lived all-girl punk rock band from the Washington DC area. They released a couple of EPs and one full length album before the members all moved on to bigger things.

  • Frontwoman and bassist Christina Billotte would later form Slant 6, who put out two records between 1993 and 1995. She played in a couple of other DC punk bands as well, including the east coast carnation of Bratmobile. That experiment didn’t last long, and the rest of the gals went back to Olympia.
  • Guitar player Mary Timony would later have quite a bit of success in other bands. She replaced the folkie Mary Lou Lord as the front of Helium in 1993 after Lord refused to play electric guitar. That band became pretty huge in indie circles. Timony also had a pretty decent solo career and is now playing guitar in Wild Flag alongside Carrie Brownstein and Janet Weiss, formerly of Sleater-Kinney
  • I’m not sure what ever became of guitar player Nikki Chapman or drummer Melissa Berkoff. There is a woman named Melissa Berkoff who is an accomplished professional motorcycle racer and who also recently climbed Mount Kilimanjaro. I don’t think this is the same Melissa Berkoff who played drums in Autoclave.

Anyway, this band Autoclave only lasted for about half a second. I’m not sure that I would describe their album as anything other than average. It’s not even really a proper album so much as it is a collection of the two EPs that they released plus a couple of extra songs. I think that tonight’s song is pretty special.
This is that song:
“I’ll Take You Down” by Autoclave

For the record, there are two different versions of “I’ll Take You Down” on the collected works “album”. This is the second of the two. It’s a little quicker than the other version, and I like it a little better.

They use a lot of time changes, and if you wanted to be a stickler, you would be right to call what they’re doing “math rock”, but I really don’t like that.

I really like Billotte’s vocals on this song, and almost immediately, we’re treated with the signature Mary Timony bending of notes at the 0:10 mark. I also like the “watch your back, asshole” message:

I’ll take you down, I know I can
but I’d rather wait ’til I understand
knowing where to go is just as good as knowing where to stay
I’m feeling high, I don’t know why
can’t be the scared look in your eye

I’m not messing with a woman who says that she’ll destroy me right now for no reason, but would rather wait for the right reason. Of course, alternately, she could be saying that she’s going to ask questions first and shoot later. Still, though, this comes off as a warning. At least that’s what I get.

At beginning of the song, she says “I can’t tell. How do you feel?”. Then later, she says “I know now how you feel”. Scared. That’s how I feel.

It should be no surprise, given the time (early 1990s), the place (Washington, DC), and the scene (girl-punk), that this is an easy game of “Six Degrees of Jenny Toomey”. In this case, it takes three steps to get from Autoclave to Jenny Toomey:

  1. Christina Billotte (Autoclave) was in The Casual Dots with Kathi Wilcox.
  2. Kathi Wilcox was in Bikini Kill with drummer Tobi Vail.
  3. Tobi Vail was in My New Boyfriend with Jenny Toomey

Until 1997, the only Autoclave releases were a 7″ EP and a 10″ EP. In 1997, Dischord Records compiled that stuff along with two other songs into an “album” that is usually called Autoclave. Officially, it’s called Combined. You can order Combined directly from the Dischord web store, in digital or CD formathere.

July 18 — “Western Union Desperate” by Mary Lou Lord

Mary Lou Lord

If you only listen to one song today, make it “Western Union Desperate” by Mary Lou Lord (1998, from the album Got No Shadow).

Mary Lou Lord is a folk/indie rock singer/songwriter from Salem Massachusetts. She grew up with a love of music and was a college radio deejay while she was still in high school. She attended the Berklee School of Music and earned a degree in audio production. After that, she moved to London and discovered busking. She spent hours a day every day, playing the same song over and over. Essentially practicing guitar in front of an ever-changing “audience”, and earning a little bit of money doing it.

When she returned to Boston, she continued busking in the Boston subways. By doing this, she started to develop a fan base, and she started to meet some of the right people. Around this time, she was playing a lot of folk music, and a lot of Elliot Smith, a lot of Daniel Johnston and a lot of Shawn Colvin. It was 1990, and they were all unknown at the time. She had already befriended Nick Saloman of the English indie band Bevis Frond (who has been a long-time collaborator with her), and she was playing his songs as well.

She also had a little bit of an obsession with Kurt Cobain. There have been rumors over the years that they had a wild love affair. Both Lord and Cobain denied it, but Courtney Love has caused a lot of controversy with her accusations. She still asserts to this day that something sexual was going on between Cobain and Lord. This put Mary Lou Lord on the map before she ever had a record out. Lord still, angrily, denies the affair.

One day, back in 1991, she heard a song that she really liked on a college radio show, but wasn’t able to find out what it was. In some crazy stalker scene, she followed the deejay all over town and into the Middle East club. It turns out that the song that she liked so much was something from the first Nirvana record. She became friends with this guy, who would later get her an advance copy of Nevermind. The story gets strange from here.

Lord loved her advance copy of Nevermind and learned and played some of the songs as part of her busking set. Her radio friend encouraged her to go see The Melvins on September 22, 1991. It was that night, that, totally by chance, she met Kurt Cobain. As she was leaving the venue, some people were trying to get in on the guest list, and they were being given a hard time by the door guy. Lord overheard one of the guys (who turned out to be Cobain) say that he was in Nirvana. She talked the door guy into letting them in. A while later, Cobain thanked her, and they ended up having a really long conversation. They stayed up and talked all through the night and into the next day. There was no blowjob. There was no sex. Just, according to Lord, talking and playing music. That was the entire “incident”, at least according to Lord. Here’s her story, in her own words.

This was, I think, at the beginning of the Cobain/Love engagement. I can understand why Love might have been furious at the time, but it’s 20 years later, Cobain is still dead, and nobody’s doing drugs anymore.

Lord wrote a song — “Some Jingle Jangle Morning” about Cobain. It was released on an early EP and it eventually landed on her first album. Although I gave it serious consideration, it’s not today’s song.

One day while busking, Lord was discovered by Tinuviel Sampson, who along with Slim Moon, had just started the Kill Rock Stars label. That meeting eventually resulted in a recording contract.

Around this time, Lord was also in a band called Chupa with Juliana Hatfield’s brother. When Lord decided that she didn’t want to play electric guitar, she left the band and was replaced by Mary Timony. Hatfield also left the band, and Chupa changed their name to Helium. And you all know who they are.

A couple of EPs, a couple of singles, a lot of touring. Lord still worked as a busker. She was being courted by major labels, but she fought them all off. Eventually, though, she signed on with the Work Group (a branch of Sony). That contract only bore one record — 1998’s Got No Shadow before the imprint went belly-up.

Finally, we’re to today’s song
“Western Union Desperate” by Mary Lou Lord

It’s a song, basically about devoted friendship. Or maybe it’s about how being on the road all the time sucks and you really miss your loved ones more than you imagine.

I’ve seen the sun rise from the cliffs of Point Reyes
And I’ve seen it set upon Thunder Bay
But I always keep my compass set on you

When the night comes in and the stars come out
And the highway lines start to wear me out
It’ll be okay, coz I’m coming back home to you

Distant salutation and silly souvenirs
Can’t help your twilight loneliness or wipe away your tears
I’ll wire you some love today

There’s so much more I want to say
I’m Western Union desperate in a pay phone in the rain
It’s so insane. I’m Rimbaud and you’re Verlaine

So hey California here I come
I’ve got an old backpack and a sunburned thumb
I hope my compass is tried and true
Coz when I need a friend it’s still you

I love the “in a payphone in the rain” line, which is probably a reference to the movie Say Anything.

The “I’ll wire you some love” line and the reference to the French poets Arthur Rimbaud and Paul Verlaine is pretty strange. They were dear friends and lovers. After the relationship turned a bit sour and they spent some time apart, Verlaine sent Rimbaud a telegram urging him to come to a reunion in Brussels. Their rendezvous didn’t go well. Heavy drinking and arguing escalated, and Verlaine ended up shooting Rimbaud twice. Whether he was a terrible shot, or too drunk to see straight isn’t known, but there was only a superficial flesh wound. The relationship was obviously, permanently, and irrevocably damaged.

That notwithstanding, it’s a great song. It’s simple. It’s sweet. It’s acoustic. This album is a mix of rock and folk, covers and originals. Most of the original songs were at least co-written by Nick Saloman. Today’s song is one of just four on the album that were written entirely by Lord. Apart from the Cobain-themed “Some Jingle Jangle Morning”, all of the Lord songs are folky and acoustic.

Up to and icluding the release of Got No Shadow, Mary Lou Lord’s star was rising. She was on a major label. She was getting big airplay. She was playing a lot of shows. It seemed like everything was lined up for her. However, the Work Group imprint dissolved, and Lord was without a label.

I’m not sure what happened after that, but she was silent for a few years, during which she gave birth to a daughter. In 2001, she self-released a live album. She was picked up by Rubric Records, which is the home of The Bevis Frond, and in 2004, she released Baby Blue. The title track of that album is a mediocre cover of the Badfinger song of the same name. The album was met with lukewarm reception.

In 2005, Mary Lou Lord announced that she was diagnosed with spasmodic dysphonia, a rare vocal chord disorder shared by NPR’s Diane Rehm. If you’ve ever listened to the Diane Rehm show, you probably know all about the disorder, even if you’ve never heard its name. This caused Lord to stop singing. She started doing A&R and management work, starting a management firm with her husband Kevin Patey.

Last year, she started a kickstarter project and is hoping to release a new album and tour in support of it.

You can buy Got No Shadow here.

April 13 — “Love $$$” by Helium


If you only listen to one song today, make it “Love $$$” by Helium (1994, from the EP Pirate Prude).
Helium was an indie rock/post-punk band from Boston who was active in the mid- to late-1990s. Between 1994 and 1997, they released two albums and three EPs for Matador Records. The band got started in 1992, and the original lineup featured indie folk singer Mary Lou Lord, and also Juliana Hatfield’s brother Jason. Hatfield quit, and when Mary Lou Lord didn’t want to play electric guitar, she was replaced by Mary Timony. Timony had previously been in the all-girl punk band Autoclave with Christina Billotte, who would later form Slant 6. Timony is now part of the punk super-group Wild Flag.

Although Helium had released a couple of singles on other labels, they didn’t really make a splash until the release of Pirate Prude in March of 1994. That was during my final semester of college. I was the programming director of my college radio station (WQFS – Greensboro) and I practically lived in the station. I spent a lot of time with that record. It kind of blew me away at the time. 18 years later, it still does.

The EP is themed around vampires and prostitutes. Today’s song is more of the latter.

“Love $$$” by Helium

One of the defining traits of Helium was the vocals of Mary Timony. Slightly off-key. High-pitched. While some people are put off by the pitch and the imperfection of her voice, I’ve always been a big fan.

For many years, I loved this EP, and I never gave it any thought as to what it might be about. Although there are no explicit mentions of prostitution, there’s a lot of reference to it. Like in the opening lines of the song “XXX”:

It’s not for free
But I’ll take your love
if your love will pay me

And there’s the bizarre line that goes

Go out on the street, I wanna make some money
That was just a joke about the money
You’re gonna pay me with your life

A murderous, vampiric prostitute? The rest of the EP is full of references to vampires and prostitutes.

Today’s song may or may not be about literal prostitutes. It may be more like the soul-selling phony like Holden Caufield’s brother, the Hollywood actor, in The Catcher in The Rye. It’s about becoming someone who you’re not, and knowing that it isn’t right.

It’s been a long time since you saw your body,
it looks like someone you know, like somebody.
It’s not beautiful, and it’s not ugly,
it’s just your body and it looks like somebody else.

You’re not a model.
You’re not an angel.
You’re just a person
a little out of it.

You’re not an axe murderer.
You’re not a monster.
You’re just a person
a little out of it.

Do you think it’s boring do you think that it’s dead?
Do you want a new, pretty face on your head?
You’re the star that fell out of space.
You’re a person that feels out of place.

What’s funny is that for so many years, I thought that the “axe murderer/monster” line was “astronaut/actor”.

One of the things that I like is that the song goes back and forth between (A)the long, hushed segments of mainly bass guitar and floor tom, and (B) the chaotic, boisterous sections of full band with the searing guitars and the full drum kit. When part B comes in, it’s pretty sudden each time. Not like a switch going on and off, but more like a swift hit with a sledgehammer. It first happens at the 1:00 mark, and goes through the end of that verse.

Blunt force, juxtaposed with delicate touch. That’s Helium for you.

Pirate Prude is out of print, and I don’t even see it available from the usual legal digital download sellers. There are a scant few physical copies available out there in the electronic world. While there are a few going for just a couple of dollars, most are selling for $30, and there’s even a copy in “used” condition going for more than $70. That’s nonsense. If you see a used copy somewhere at a bookstore or a yard sale, buy it. You won’t be sorry.

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