True to the title of this odds and ends collection, the ‘90s Boston-via-DC band finished in a place that felt like the middle.
Instead of piling bonus tracks onto the backs of their new vinyl reissues of Helium’s two studio albums, The Dirt of Luck and The Magic City, Matador have done an even kinder thing and put together an entire separate slab of rarities, demos and stray tracks, which present a third look into the Boston-via-DC band’s different faces and their stages of development.
Kinder, that is, to everyone except leader Mary Timony, who had to personally spend hours digging through boxes and reaching out to other people to unearth some of the demos, and even bought a four-track in order to play some of their old tapes. The spiny spoils of her treasure hunt are piled up on Ends With And, a 19-song collection that also offers non-LP singles like “Hole in the Ground”, B-sides, and standouts from Helium’s debut Pirate Prude EP. The freer nature of this kind of compilation means that branch-outs like “What Institution Are You From” (off the Superball EP) that didn’t quite fit on either album can get the second chance they deserve.
“We liked distortion back then,” said Timony, talking about The Dirt of Luck like it was the distant past in a video interview with MTV’s Indie Outing program in 1997. The first quarter of Ends With And backs this claim up. The starting run from “Baby Vampire Made Me” (from Pirate Prude) through “Lucy” (the B-side on the “Hole in the Ground” 7”) is Helium at its heaviest. In moments they almost sound like a different band altogether, and it’s true that bassist Ash Bowie (also in Polvo) didn’t join Timony and drummer Shawn King Devlin in the band until after Pirate Prude. Still, when the chorus of “Love $$$” kicks in with the fuzz pedals and bent guitar strings, and Timony hits that upper register to declare “You’re not a model/You’re not an angel/You’re just a person”, if it weren’t for that voice you’d swear you were listening to Mineral.
Helium may not have made a substantial impact on the post-hardcore side of emo, but their cleverly confrontational indie rock left a mark on other sensitive types. “Your Bruise”, Death Cab for Cutie’s first single, a split 7” with the Revolutionary Hydra, notably name-checked the band. “Mary Timony was smaller than a superball,” goes a clutch line in the song, but the influence went beyond lyrical citations. It’s easy to hear traces of The Dirt of Luck in DCFC’s early records, and someone back in those Bellingham days surely also had a copy of the Rock Stars Kill compilation put out by the Olympia, WA, label Kill Rock Stars, which included the scrappy “Puffin Stars” found on Ends With And.
Before joining Helium, Mary Timony played in the band Autoclave, who had practiced in the same house in Washington, DC, as Bikini Kill. Timony has recently spoken about being “kind of part of that scene”, but also feeling on the outside of it for musical or personal reasons. You can hear shared concerns such as self-acceptance and success on one’s own terms in the lyrics of songs like “Love $$$” and “Hole in the Ground”, though in Helium the tone was a bit more observational and a bit less call-to-action.
Transactional relationships were also a recurring point of interest for Timony, as with “XXX” here and “Honeycomb” from The Dirt of Luck. If history softens Helium’s edge, they aren’t being remembered right. An understated wild card in her band’s videos (all of which now have a distinctly ‘90s charm) as well as on wax, Mary Timony appeared unburdened by any need to stay in prefabricated identity boxes, slipping on whatever character’s skin a song invited. It could mean leaning into the passenger-side window of a john’s car in “Honeycomb”, or leaning against a powerful Caterpillar D5CXL Crawler Tractor in “Superball”.
Named after a strip club in Atlanta, Helium’s second album looked not so much for a way to vent but for a way to escape. Timony, a trained musician who had once studied classical guitar and only ever played loosely on purpose for aesthetic reasons, was surrounded by guys who were content to coast on slacker chic. No wonder, then, that the mandolin, trumpet, and even a sitar came out on the softer, layered Magic City. Apparently the trio even began to toy with medieval themes after that, a claim backed up here by the presence of “Fantastic Castle” and “The Dragon”. This curious diversion winds down Ends With And, which, true to its title and true to the band, ends somewhere that actually feels like a middle.