Helium: The Magic City (1997)
Helium's 1995 debut, The Dirt of Luck, combined mid-90s guitar-driven post-punk with a heavier (dare I say grunge?) sound. And while I liked frontwoman Mary Timony's vocal style (a casual semi-spoken delivery akin to Liz Phair), and the album includes "Pat's Trick" (one of my favorite indie songs of the era), I've never really gotten into it. For their second and final album, Timony both lightened up and stretched out. (It's produced by Mitch Easter, who also contributes throughout, though it sounds nothing like the jangle-pop of his work with R.E.M. and other bands.) The album opens with a solid one-two punch, both "Vibrations" and "Leon's Space Song" sporting some skewed yet killer hooks. Those alone make you wonder why Helium never got the same critical attention as, say, the Breeders or Phair or Sleater-Kinney or Throwing Muses. The next couple slow things down a bit, introducing some interesting guitar diversions and almost jazz-like flourishes, an odd cross between Kim Gordon's Sonic Youth tracks and Joni Mitchell; they're unpredictable yet quite pretty.
That's when things start getting weird. "Medieval People" is a piano-driven instrumental, interrupted by explosions and other sonic interludes, more Tori Amos + Yes than post-punk. After that, the album continues to veer all over the place, a few pop hooks like on the earlier tracks (i.e. "Devil's Tear") but almost prog-like in other places, with genre-bending musical complexity and harpsichords and mystically-drenched lyrics. Not necessarily an easy listen, but often fascinating, and unlike anything else out there at the time.
Here's the video for "Leon's Space Song":Here's an audio rip of "Vibrations":(And, as a bonus, a live performance of same.)And an audio rip of "Devil's Tear":