The only ones
Solo shots from Mary Timony and Jack Drag
Cellars by Starlight by Brett Milano
Mary Timony has never been the type to spill her guts in a song lyric. As for
spilling somebody else's guts, no problem. And that's especially true on her
new solo album, Mountains (Matador), which is populated largely by
doomed and haunted Ophelia types. She's not saying that any of those people is
actually her, but she can tell you what the characters were seeing and hearing
when the songs took place.
Consider "Painted Horses," one of Mountain's centerpieces. Like much of
the album, it's stripped down and stark, built around Timony's voice and piano
(she also plays guitar and viola on the disc). What lingers is the sense of
despair that infuses both the lyric ("Won't you kill me with your song/I'm
already dead, so it shouldn't take long") and the lovely tune. "My songs are
always about longing," Timony explains over herbal tea at the Middle East,
where she'll be headlining downstairs next Thursday (May 11). "The character in
the song always tries to transcend life. Usually they go up into the sky, or
down under the ground. I don't know why, but that happens in every song. When
I'm writing, I usually see where it takes place; I look around and describe
what I see. That one happens in a quarry -- that's one image I have. The other
is looking down at the ocean. But it's definitely over some body of water."
Helium have been Timony's main outlet for the past seven years, and she and
drummer Shawn King Devlin have been the only constant members (the bass has
been handled by Brian Dunton, by Ash Bowie, and by nobody). So you might expect
a Timony solo album to be a Helium album under a different name, but you'd be
only half right. Helium have evolved from a sharp and angry guitar band to a
more prog-oriented rock outfit fond of lush arrangements and mystical imagery.
The Magic City (Matador, 1998) ranks as one of the few great prog albums
of its decade, possibly the only one made by a band associated with the
Mountains strips away the sophisticated production that producer Mitch
Easter helped devise for The Magic City. If the new album brings to mind
anyone untrendy, it's Blue-era Joni Mitchell instead of Yes. And for the
first time Timony is coming out and saying what she (or at least her narrator)
is feeling. "The sadness on this record freaks some people out. To me it's a
positive thing, more about getting rid of sadness. I wanted something that was
more lo-fi and raw in terms of emotional content -- I was less interested in
creating something I could see and more in something I could feel. On Magic
City, I could see the instruments working together; it was like looking at
the inside of a clock. To me this is less surface."
She alludes to its having been a year of personal shake-ups that influenced the
direction of the album. "Music for me is more of a cathartic thing than it used
to be. Right now that's the whole point. But I hope there's still parts of it
that sound hopeful." As for the early records, "I don't ever listen to them. I
like [the 1995 full-length] The Dirt of Luck a lot, but the ones before
that . . . they were all really angry and crazy-sounding. I hope
I'm not as scary anymore."
So are Helium dead? Maybe, but nothing's been decided as yet. What's certain is
that you won't mistake Timony's Middle East appearance for a Helium gig. She
and producer/musician Christina Files -- her collaborator from the album, a
one-time guitarist in the Swirlies, and the current drummer in Victory at Sea
-- will be the only persons on stage, and they plan to get into some
free-flowing improvs between songs. "I got a delay pedal and it's been great.
We do space jams." In fact, Timony introduced this format about a year ago,
when she and Files opened for a sold-out Sleater-Kinney show at the Middle
East. Playing an hour of as-yet unreleased material, they started out with
more-or-less straight pop but rose into the ether when Timony picked up her
viola. It was a fitfully inspired set that fascinated some fans and alienated
others, especially since it was a million miles from the kick-it-out rock that
the Sleaters were doing.
If nothing else, I suggest, Timony challenges her audience to keep up with her.
"People do say that every time I put a record out, and I always say, `Oh no,
not again.' But that just happens every time I come up with a new batch of
songs. I just get an instinct and feel a change. For instance, I wouldn't think
of doing the Helium songs with this line-up, it just wouldn't be fun. And I
didn't want to make a sparse, solo-sounding record and call it Helium." Pushed
further, she notes that a Museum School class on sound art was one of the main
influences on the current album. "Something about that really appeals to me:
the idea of making it about sound and nothing else. What I really like to do is
to combine the pop and the noise, the ugliness and the beauty. And to me those
two things are really close."
While the album was being made, Timony turned up in a venue so normal and
mainstream, it was downright surreal: a Priceline.com TV commercial that
featured William Shatner. The ad finds Shatner fronting a rock band whose
members include Timony and Sleater-Kinney guitarist Carrie Brownstein -- and if
you're familiar with all the principals, there's a great in-joke in there
somewhere. The connection was director Phil Morrison, who's also a rock-video
director and is friends with Ash Bowie.
"He was really out of it," Timony says of Shatner. "He was like a big, spoiled
dog. He'd crack a lot of jokes trying to make people laugh, but he'd also do
things like have the chef make him sushi and then throw it in the trashcan
because it wasn't good enough. So, yeah, he was funny, but actually he drove me
nuts. I am glad I had the opportunity, though, because I was so broke."
Jack Drag reappears
Jack Drag the band are dead. But Jack Drag the
individual (a/k/a John Dragonetti) is alive and well. Although he's been
keeping a low profile since the band dissolved in the wake of a major-label
bummer (their Dopebox was released just before the forced merger of
Interscope/A&M/Geffen that left a lot of developing bands out in the cold),
Dragonetti is lately reviving the band concept. A new Jack Drag album, Soft
Songs LP: Aviating, comes out next month on the Chicago indie Sugar Free.
And he's playing gigs under the group moniker again (the next one is set for
Thursday May 25 at T.T. the Bear's Place).
Although it may seem less commercial than Dopebox -- half of the 10
tracks are mostly instrumental -- the forthcoming album is more basic pop than
usual for Jack Drag: the hip-hop samples and metal guitars that embellished
Dopebox are played down and the tunes themselves are pushed forward.
Acoustic guitars even appear on a few songs. Instead of running wild in the
studio, Dragonetti recorded everything himself at home. The obvious radio
track, "We Could Have Been Big," sounds like a bemused response to the
major-label experience: "We could have been big, it would have been nice/We
could have been more popular than Jesus Christ," goes the tune's salient line.
It's a reference to the infamous John Lennon quote about the Beatles being
bigger than Jesus Christ, and it isn't the album's only Fab Four reference.
There's also a "Tomorrow Never Knows" drum pattern in "At the Symphony, I Could
Be." And the string sounds on the disc hark back to "Within You Without You."
"I don't think this record defines where I'm going, it just captures a moment
in time," Dragonetti explains. "It was a time for me to sit back and reflect
and make something that came a little closer to the heart. I mean,
Dopebox was good, but I really felt a little removed from it. It was the
psychological thing that happens when something you want to do gets watered
down." His ambivalence about the industry turns up elsewhere on the new disc: a
nasty-sounding instrumental gets the title "An Evening at the Boston Music
Awards." He explains that one with an evasive laugh: "I was in search of a
title, and I thought I'd bring some close-to-home element into it. I'm not
trying to be mean, so I'll leave the meaning of that one up to you."
On stage the Jack Drag band line-up now comprises Dragonetti on guitar/vocals
and new bandmate Evelyn Pope on keys and samplers -- though former bassist Joe
Klompus may drop back in when he's not touring with Tracy Bonham (the other
member of the split-up trio, drummer Jason Sutter, is in Los Angeles playing
with popster Jason Falkner). Another Jack Drag album is already set to be
wrapped up this summer, and that one should be very different, since he's
working with hip-hop star producer Dan "The Automator" Nakamura (lately known
as half of Handsome Boy Modeling School). "It's funny: he's known as a hip-hop
producer, but he's also a classically trained violinist. So I'm into his
hop-hop stuff, but he likes my mellow, string-influenced things. That could be
the record I throw myself back into the rat race with, but right now I'm happy
where I am."
The Cellars by Starlight archive