The Boston Phoenix
May 4 - 11, 2000

[Music Reviews]

| clubs by night | bands in town | club directory | pop concerts | classical concerts | reviews | hot links |

The only ones

Solo shots from Mary Timony and Jack Drag

Cellars by Starlight by Brett Milano

A solo Mary Timony 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 indie-pop movement.

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 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

[Music Footer]