Since her beloved trio Helium went on extended hiatus years ago (never to return?), scene queen Mary Timony has remade herself as a solo songstress. And as with Helium, critics and fans alike have been falling over themselves with praise for this new era of her career.
On her solo debut, 2000's Mountains (on Matador, longtime label of Helium), Timony first showcased the sparse results of losing her bandmates' syrupy instrumentation. Her new songs seemed skeletal and creepily quiet, whispering into the wind instead of roaring into it. Where Helium buried her songwriting in a sort of mystical maelstrom, Mountain laid bare every guitar twang and oddball keyboard twinkle.
Owning up to more mature influences like the Fairport Convention, Timony distorted barefoot bedroom folk with phantasmagoric fairy tale themes. Sure, Helium had been edging in direction all along, culminating in 1997's The Magic City (see song titles like "Medieval People" and "Lullaby of the Moths"), but Timony emerged a full-blown sorceress on Mountains.
Singing of "poison moons" and "painted horses", she was labeled a Tolkien-ite by some, given her gravitation towards such colorful fantasy imagery. Her blasé vocal delivery made it all the more intriguing, sleepily spitting out allusions to shape-shifting, suicide, gender conflicts, and betrayal. The album also revealed a fascination with numbers, in lines like "I fire myself 10 times a day", "With 14 horses on top of my head", "On my 26th day of being alone", "13 bees have died today", and "I walk in your valley of 1,000 perfumes".
Truly, Timony bewitched us with Mountains, and now she's returned with an equally entrancing follow-up, The Golden Dove. Once again, it's a barren affair musically, with gloomy piano or repetitive guitar snaking from an ethereal backdrop of spooky noises. The songs are short, mostly clocking in at under three minutes, and they blend into another with an organic coherence. They sometimes sound too much alike, but the allure of Timony's storytelling is enough to make each distinguishable with time.
On the opening "Look a Ghost in the Eye", she is more invigorated than on much of the album, recalling the bluesy angst of classic Helium. Offhandedly bitter, she asks, "Can you see me now like I see you now? / Do you feel what you are thinking about? / Will I like you then like I like you now? / Do you radiate hope? / Do you radiate doubt?" amid spectral strings and vocal harmonies. Next, on "The Mirror", she makes mention of "these songs of death getting in the way", but luckily, her morbid themes are rarely obstructive.
Despite its name, "Blood Tree" is more upbeat, laced with tambourine in its kiss-off chorus about a boyfriend who pops pills and shows her topless photos of his ex. Fed up, Timony sings, "Go away / Leave me alone / Go chew on your dog's bone / The only boy I ever loved / Turned into a golden dove / And moved to California". Apparently the album's first video, "Dr. Cat" is actually one of the weaker songs, marked simply by singsongy vocals, Gothic piano, and a frenetic buildup. More interesting is the mention of a black raven knocking in "The Owl's Escape," a presumable reference to Poe.
The album's centerpiece has to be "Musik and Charming Melodee", a lengthier track (4:30) boasting an instrumental intro of almost two minutes before Timony intones, "Musik sets us free". It's surprisingly layered and rockier, with whooshing quasi-prog keyboards that recall the sonic swirl of The Magic City's Stereolab-ish "The Revolution of Hearts, Pts. I and II". Next, "14 Horses" revives both Timony's numerological mindset and her modern themes of Californian escape -- "I've been trying all the time / With 14 horses on my mind / Take me back to L.A. / Riding on the dappled gray". Some lines are repeated by a distorted version of her voice, deepened by the thump of a single bass drum and then shadowy strings.
"Magic Power", the other real gem of Dove, is full of evocative lyrics -- "All through the city on the wings of a dove / Feeling sick and dirty with no help from above / Something's slipping and I'm not in love / A tale of pity and a dirty glove". Timony gets backing vocals from Sparklehorse leader Mark Linkous, who also played on and produced the album. She sings of an alcoholic guitarist living above her, asking "How do you love a dead dove?" and "How do you live with death in your mind?".
On "The White Room", Timony admits, "I know my thinking is serpentine", something we've known all along. "Ant's Dance" has thicker prog influences and a swell of horns, while "Dryad and the Mule" spikes a reverb-y keyboard with handclaps and whistling, with her vocal melody recalling the aforementioned "Magic Power". Then the closing "Ash and Alice" (a reference to former bandmate Ash Bowie?) is a spacey instrumental followed by a brief hidden track.
While Mountains felt like an odd twist on the last few Helium albums, Dove, if anything, feels like an odd twist on Mountains. It's even dreamier and less grounded, stocked with bizarrely complex themes (though simply rhymed) that might make you lose some sleep. But it's just as gorgeous as anything she's ever done. It can seem as if Timony is always playing minor variations on the same hand, creatively, but it's undeniably a fascinating deck she's been dealing from.