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Helms - McCarthy


Junk Media

Upon listening to McCarthy, it is readily apparent that, sonically, you can draw a line straight from Slint to Rodan and then, jumping ahead some years, directly to Helms. While Helms does not exhibit the propulsive dread of Rodan, some of the songs on its latest and second long-player would fit fairly comfortably at the tail end of Rodan's landmark album, Rusty. And though Helms covers little new ground for the post-Slint school of indie rock, the band still pulls off a consistently compelling effort working with elements of its idiom.

Indeed, the members of the Boston-based post-rock trio are skilled practitioners of hypnotically nodding and angular music and of structuring songs in odd meters that wear grooves into your ears. Guitarist Sean McCarthy and bassist Tina Helms alternate between massaging quiet slides of sound from their instruments and leveling staccato assaults. As a result, the band is at turns meditative and aggressive, as in the opener "The Hypochondriac's Last Words," which regularly shifts gears from cascading 4/4 meditations to a 3/4 pummeling.

McCarthy coaxes melodic waves from his axe using repetitive hammer-ons to lay the foundation for one of the album's many highlights, "It Takes Skin to Win." The song offers a case study of how Helms makes a compelling rock number. A complementary melody line layers in on top of the repeating guitar figure as spare bass notes drive the melody and cymbals take the composition into overdrive. Then the song gradually recedes into silence.

Helms doesn't forsake the angular legacy of its influences. "Ten Thousand Things" ends with a blistering section of 5/4 rock. "Horace: Age 19; Powers: None" consistently pushes the rock-o-meter to the red and ends with a neatly stilted section. McCarthy's closer, "Cornish, New Hampshire," catalogs the contents of a drawer amid silence and sharp splashes of guitar, bass and drums. It comes off with a didactic vibe that unfortunately gets less jarring and a tad tiresome toward its end.

Guitarist Sean McCarthy also handles vocal duties for the band, and his deadpan delivery is able to imbue some seemingly geeky lines with a sort of mythical importance. As a result, lines like, "And they pulled their amplifiers from the ocean, soaked through and caked with sand," come off without a hint of silliness. Still, McCarthy's vocals may also be Helms' sole Achilles' heel; his insistence of speak-singing or yelling throughout the record, rather than attempting a more traditional vocal delivery, means the band has one less tool in its arsenal. Even so, the band's strong sense of melody is almost enough to make this shortfall negligible.

One thing Helms can't be accused of is watering down the vintage post-rock sound. While the Chicago scene and many of it followers have slouched towards more placid jazzy and electronic styles, Helms' facsimile of Rusty-era rock is true and representative. The band's high energy level shines through in the performances on McCarthy, ultimately dispelling any concerns about their dabbling in a once celebrated though now admittedly aged sound. Indeed, more popular genre-aping bands (The Vines and the Mooney Suzuki, I am looking at you) get away with a lot more even though they offer a hell of a lot less. -Jay Breitling


Ink 19

What a stunning, beautiful album the threesome of one Helms and two McCarthys have come up with here. Most evidently referencing Karate and Sonic Youth, Helms add the beautiful CBGB-punk of Television and Velvet Underground-inspired soundscapes to the mix, and in the process create such lovely tracks as the uncomfortable thrilling "At Night the Ringing Filled Their Rooms..." and the subdued "The Ten Thousand Things." McCarthy is a collection of songs that float around in one of those claustrophobic dreams in which the walls are closing in on you and it seems impossible to escape the inevitable or even to resist it. And while "The Skills You Need to Succeed in the 20th Century" may need an update on the title, Helms are nothing but highly contemporary and risk-taking music, bravely exploring and expanding their limitations. "Robots Are Great..." sounds a bit like some weird post-rock take on "Ghost Riders in the Sky," but that is the odd one out. Everywhere else, Helms have delivered a stunning album, and one to treasure.


Action Attack Helicopter

Helms is a band that would probably shy away from categorization, but there are definitely elements of Slinty post-rock and math-rock in there somewhere. This is a class-act group in every possible regard, with a driving rhythm section and killer guitar work. The band named itself after their bassist, with the album title coming from the brotherly duo of guitars and drums. Personally, I think that Helms-McCarthy would be a pretty good name for the band, say, on the next album of course. Centipedes and spiders crawl up and down six-string fretboards, and drums are relentlessly pounded in that particular way that makes the hair stand on the back of your neck, propelling you to you hit the repeat button a few more times. This album is both a "grower" and immediately enjoyable, like all the best in your collection. I've heard few stronger debuts in my twenty-five years, and I'd like nothing more than for you the reader to hear this particular debut, post-haste. There is maturity as well as songwriting talent evident in each of the eleven cuts on this album, and I'd be hard-pressed to pick a favorite. This is the best new CD I heard this month. -Michael Cavagnaro


The Noise

Even more stunning in dynamics, range and song structure than 2000's outstanding The Swimmer, Helms' latest has managed the rare feat of being a "post-rock" album that is catchy, accessible, and unpretentious. When's the last time you heard a Slint-inspired band make a Van Halen reference? Vocalist/guitarist Sean McCarthy "reaches down between his legs to ease the seat back" a la David Lee Roth while dropping science re: "The Skills You Need to Succeed in the 20th Century," and later lays down some brilliant guitar noise like the bastard son of Sonny Sharrock on the instrumental "Robots are Great, But are We Ready for Them to Dance on Their Own?" Helms' sense of humor, while never "ha ha" funny, adds levity in all the appropriate places and saves their material from ever becoming too ponderous. Bassist Tina Helms' sparse, unobtrusive lines provide the perfect foundation for Sean's angular parts and Dan McCarthy's aggressive, Elvin Jones-style drumming. The musicianship and execution are top-notch, and one never gets the sense that any words or notes are extraneous. McCarthy is highly recommended to anybody with a taste for excellent, creative music. -Mike Baldino


Delusions of Adequacy

Karate, Slint, Victory at Sea In each of bag of review discs, there's always one that's a bit intimidating; one that deserves better than being easily dismissed with bitter cleverness or over-bearing accolades. Whether it's good or bad, whether you personally like it or not, what it does it does with either a noticeable amount of ambition or heart; it reaches for ideas or takes a stab at cultivating a sound. Recently, there's been Consonant's introspective and hard-hitting rock and the Moonbabies' shockingly gorgeous pop. Long, arty, wandering, and thoroughly confident, McCarthy, from the New England band Helms, also stands apart.

Coming in at over 50 minutes and with songs that routinely stretch out over five minutes and more, with little - okay, nothing - in the way of traditional verse/chorus/verse the band seems to have little desire to make things easy. You can either doze off, turn it off in disgust, or get swept up in their atmospheres. Go ahead, I've done all three since I started trying to get a handle on this disc a few weeks ago. Time signatures stretch to accommodate guitar lines that run longer than standard, and beats are added and dropped as needed. Instruments sometimes feel like they're playing in whatever time they want. At its best, despite the busy arrangements, the songs avoid the pitfall of sounding like exercises. If you're not paying attention, the disc can become almost amorphous as the 11 tracks tend to blend into one long thought. An immediate comparison is Karate, as both have a tendency to craft pieces that freely wander about and both possess lofty aspirations beyond three-minute symphonies. While the playing on McCarthy may not show the same technical flair Karate pulls out, I find it can deliver a bit more of a visceral impact. In some cases, as on "The Skills You Need to Succeed in the 20th Century," the songs have a sort of falling-off-the-cliff quality as the playing almost threatens to come apart. They seem to have a solid appreciation for the beauty of three instruments crashing together.

Looping guitar lines that can be quite hypnotic and Sean McCarthy's sparse, spoken vocals set a tone that spikes with yells and peaking volumes. On the fantastic "Horace: Age19; Powers None" Helms capture some of their most cohesive and powerful playing on the disc, contrasted against McCarthy's low-key dialogue. "It Takes Skin to Win" is the closest they come, which is to say not very close, to a memorable pop song. Like most other releases on Kimchee, McCarthy is richly recorded by Andy Hong; the overall sound of the disc doesn't give off the same kind of emasculated quality that makes releases from other bands treading in the indie-math geek pool seem pretty flat. To knock them, I question their naked quoting of "Panama" during "The Skills You Need to Succeed in the 20th Century." Its seems a too obvious nod to kitsch that seems flatly out of place and pandering.

A friend once compared Seam McCarthy's spoken vocals and lyrical style, which tends to focus on detailed, sometimes repetitive, drawn-out phrases, to dialogue from "The Jerk" ("I don't need one other thing, not one - I need this! The paddle game, and the chair, and the remote control, and the matches, for sure. And this! And that's all I need; the ashtray, the remote control, the paddle game, this magazine and the chair."). The song he was referring to is McCarthy's last track, "Cornish, New Hampshire," a lengthy, jarring, exercise where Sean inventories the contents of his desk drawer ("And I've got this drawer full of letters, postcards, and I've got these seven pens, and a nail, and I've got three nickels, a broken watch, and I've got two rubber bands, a dead battery, and I've got this rusty pair of scissors..."). Potentially a meditation on how the smallest possessions and bits of our lives combine to tell a story that's ultimately bigger than us, the track is indulgent and pretentious, but it's really the perfect song for them to end the disc with. Everything that has come before dug deep to get at your psychology; it's only appropriate that they save their most over-the-top stab for the finale. The silence between each crashing declaration can be unnerving, or silly if you're not playing along, but they're hanging themselves out there. Occasionally self-important, McCarthy is a dense, sometimes powerful, messy, promising success. -Jon


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