20 Jun 2002: Bottom of the Hill San Francisco
It’s been a curious evolution for Mary Timony. After fronting Helium in the mid-‘90s, she walked away from a career being labeled as Liz Phair’s ethereal sister and embarked on a solo project that would divest herself of all indie cred. Timony went from singing about the constraints and freedoms of being labeled a hag, crone, witch, bitch, whore and priss; to singing of dragons, elves, wizards and spells, accompanied by harpsichords, lyres, dulcimers and other such bygone instrumentation.
The problem with this—apart from attracting an audience who dresses itself in flowing velvet robes, pointy hats and can only make a decision based on the roll of a 16-sided die—is that her lyrics, once her greatest strength, are now less immediate and engaging, instead being increasingly idiosyncratic. At least that’s a generous way of putting it. One could say Timony is disappearing into the deepest recesses of a mythical medieval world, one populated by those who have severe problems in dealing with their peers and reality. Timony’s work in Helium was the opposite of escape—it was confrontational. Not in an abrasive hackneyed way, but through thought-provoking lyrics, juxtaposing different aspects of the gender wars. Timony seems to have de-evolved, regressed into some awkward teenager’s bedroom fantasy, no longer grappling with how to successfully combine being an individual, a woman and someone else’s fantasy, into one cohesive whole.
It’s a direction that made her solo debut, Mountains, such a painful experience. The recent follow-up, The Golden Dove, is less so but still a sometimes awkward blend between Timony’s past glories and her recent woeful follies.
Perhaps to her dismay, the bar is not decked out with tapestries nor lit by flaming torches. Ale is on tap, but not mead. Timony does her best to address the situation, by draping her keyboard stand with silver and blue cloth, for a more stately air. It builds a sense of trepidation, like being a rabbit caught in the headlights, mesmerized by impending disaster. Are we really going to party like it’s 1299?
Timony warms up by playing some violin. Badly. Never has the instrument looked more unwieldy and less musical. Thankfully we are spared this for most of the performance, instead Timony is augmented by cellist in addition to the traditional guitar and drums.
She begins with a song called “Magic Power”. Its chorus chant of “hey-ho” evokes the seven dwarfs rather than seven grand wizards communing to decide the fate of the universe. Neither could be considered a victory.
Is the whole concert as bad as that, I hear you ask. Well, no. Thanks to the typical sound of a small club, the lyrics end up being somewhat subservient to the instruments. This allows the Dungeons and Dragons imagery to dissipate, allowing the music to take over. The keyboard actually allows Timony to achieve some wonderful texture for the songs; “The Mirror” sounds as if it is drenched in synth-feedback. By this point, what can be gleaned from the lyrics successfully evokes an eerie atmosphere of deadly foreboding, without recourse to a parchment scroll.
By the time she plays The Golden Dove‘s two strongest songs mid-set, “Look a Ghost in the Eye” and “Blood Tree”, I start to feel a bit guilty for having written her off. It’s not all goblins and fairies. “Blood Tree” shows she is still capable of singing without recourse to hackneyed Arthurian legend. Lines about a boyfriend showing pictures of his ex-girlfriend, on the beach without her shirt on, illustrates Timony retains some of her themes of old, and is at her best when tackling messy relations.
Then of course she blows it, playing “The Owl’s Escape” and singing in a high-pitched voice. The song embodies all the worst elements of ye olde solo career and is atrocious.
Timony’s partner in Helium, Polvo mainstay Ash Bowie is in attendance tonight. Seeing him in the crowd builds a lament for the Helium reunion that inevitably cannot happen. So it should be with some delight that he is called upon to join Mary on stage at the end of her set. He saunters up there, and proceeds to hide himself by sitting on the stage tucked away in the corner. “We’ve never actually played this song together before,” is all we get by way of introduction. It should be enough to raise hopes of rekindling that magic spark that made Helium such an exciting prospect. But no, instead we get a tied droning jam piece. It’s boring, lacking any dynamic or vitality, and purely self-indulgent. The way he hides himself away in a corner on the floor says it all. Is he embarrassed to even be there? He was supposed to be our knight in shining armor, restoring things to a fairer time. Instead, has an evil witch cast a spell and imprisoned him?
And just when you thought things couldn’t get any weirder, in the middle of the encore, Timony gets up from the keyboard and stands defiant, center stage, arm raised with fist straight in the air. Is she making a statement of solidarity with the Black Panthers? No, it’s just the first move in a bizarre dance routine, like Hairspray crossed with A Knight’s Tale. Timony proceeds to awkwardly demonstrate the history of dance, but she stops short of the moonwalk and the running man. This isn’t so much crass as just plain odd, and maybe with a goofy kind of cool. It then begrudgingly dawns that Timony is clearly dedicated to her vision, and if it’s one we can’t see, that is going to have no bearing whatsoever. And isn’t this kind of dedication to one’s art the very thing that should earn an artist the most respect? Normally yes, and Timony has earned it. But that doesn’t mean anyone is going to like it. If Timony is to continue to earn any respect, it is only at the expense of a far superior body of work, which it appears will now be sadly neglected for all eternity.