Helms – McCarthy


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.