November 22, 2003

Helms "McCarthy"

The debt that Massachusetts trio Helms holds to indie-rock pioneers
Slint is made abundantly clear from McCarthy's very first song, "The
Hypochondriac's Last Words." The song gains most of its mileage from jarring loud/soft dynamics and tricky time signature changes. The guitar playing switches from arrhythmic arpeggios to slashing, distorted riffs. The words, whether spoken or shouted, are delivered in the most listless manner imaginable, and seem to concern the discursive path a pigeon takes as it attempts to follow an eagle across the city. If this doesn't strike you as a succinct description of a Spiderland outtake, you might want to dust off your copy of that record and listen to it again. (Even if it does, there's no harm in giving a masterpiece just one more listen for old time's sake.) This band is named after its bassist, Tina Helms, and its second album is named after the brotherly duo of Sean and Dan McCarthy, who play guitar/vocals and drums, respectively. Correct me if I'm wrong, but didn't all of the song titles from Slint's debut Tweez come from the band members' close friends and relatives("Ron," "Carol," "Kent,"etc.)? I know that rock critics are prone to make lazy comparisons, but a band like Helms simply makes it too easy! When a band is this derivative, they'd better be able to compensate for it in some other area, in order to keep from being dismissed or ignored. After letting McCarthy grow on me for a couple of weeks, I have to say that although there is definitely room for improvement, Helms have acquitted themselves admirably through sheer talent.

The album is split pretty evenly between highlights and lowlights. "It Takes Skin to Win" coasts on little more than a pretty finger-tapped guitar riff; in the lyrics, Sean compares the feeling he gets from playing in a band to that of slowly rising out of the ocean. It is to the band's credit that even its most abstract lyrics, instead of coming off like pseudo-cerebral nonsense, can be used as metaphors for real-life situations. "The Ten Thousand Things" uses architectural images to examine the plight of a man who has willfully isolated himself from the rest of the world. "I wear this house like a head," Sean croons on the song's introduction, like a friendlier, less pitch-deficient Lou Reed. He repeats the mantra "I lock my doors/I shut the blinds/I close my eyes," and the music gets louder as his desire for solitude increases. "Horace: Age 19; Powers: None" sports the only obvious production trick on the album that helps the song instead of hurts it. The rhythm section is randomly punched in and out of the mix during the song's climax, producing a series of sharp, unexpected interjections that give the song intensity not unlike that of a chase scene.

Sometimes, though, Helms go too far out of their way to play tricks on the listener, and this is where they falter. The otherwise compelling song "The Skills You Need to Succeed in the 20th Century" is derailed in by an intentional tape dropout that sounds like a Walkman with dying batteries, slowing down to a dead halt. "Three" begins with one clumsy guitar and Sean mumbling incoherently about pornography. The rest of the band steps in mid-song, with a riff that I initially thought would pull the song out of its doldrums. Instead, the riff fades out and is restarted three times for no apparent reason. McCarthy's final song, "Cornish, New Hampshire," commits the album's worst offense by dragging the listener through FOUR MINUTES' WORTH of false endings. The band crashes into one chord after another, with the gaps of silence between these chords growing longer and longer. Only rock critics and masochists would bother to sit through the entire song for more than one listen.

I'm pretty sure that my partiality towards Helms stems from the fact
that I was ten years old when Spiderland was released; because my age has divorced me from its proper context, I haven't formed a strong enough relationship to the record to be as strongly irritated as, say, Steve Albini, would be by artists who plagiarize it lock, stock, and barrel. I still believe, though, that Helms is able to transcend its main influence through the strength of its lyrics and instrumental interplay. The band doesn't need to utilize silly production tricks and false endings to prove its cleverness. If they rid themselves of these annoying habits, they will certainly deserve the honor of being crowned the Slint of my generation.

--Sean Padilla

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