It's been 17 years since Mary Timony was introduced to the indie scene, via the Washington DC quartet Autoclave. Pre-grunge, at the birth of Dischord Records' most adventurous era, Autoclave was a band whose flickering existence was painfully short-lived, although their influence still rings in the ears of musicians who forge the same post-punk route. After the Autoclave ashes were scattered, Timony hightailed it to Boston and fronted Helium, a more straightforward rock outfit, but adventurous enough to woo indie kids the world over with challenging pop songs that were centered on Timony's breathy delivery.
After Helium deflated in 1998, Timony began her solo career, releasing a pair of records on Matador, including 2000's flawless Mountains, and one on Berkeley's Lookout! Records, before finally settling with Kill Rock Stars, which released album number four, The Shapes We Make, earlier this year. While The Shapes is Timony at her most comfortable, she still fidgets with a restlessness that allows her to pace furiously throughout her songs, hopping from instrument to instrument. The end result is both a hybrid take on prog music—in a good way—and a dreamlike waltz of hazy pop songs. The prog elements have always lingered for Timony, but The Shapes shows an artist more interested in deconstructing the genre than partaking in it. Not only does Timony want out of the Prog Boys Club, she seems content to torch the entire treehouse, King Crimson records and all.
The album opens with "Sharpshooter," an ambitious opening track that allows Timony's signature guitar chops to interact spaciously with an oracle of backing vocals and flashy drumming by Devin Ocampo. The whimsical lyrics tell of deer, birds, bees, and... Ted Nugent? "Yes, there is a reference to Ted Nugent. It's about the deer surrounding him and shooting him, a doing to him as he has done to them type of thing," explains Timony via email. No word from The Nuge's camp on this burgeoning musical beef, but for now, Timony might be best off steering clear of rural Northern Michigan.
As if taking on rock music's bow-hunting champion isn't enough, Timony keeps it coming in "Pause/Off," the cleverly worded song that rotates around a subtle organ riff. And when Timony stomps out the line, "Get your laws off my body, mister/Paws off/Supreme Court misters/Don't mess around with me and my sisters," she somehow sounds both angry and polite at the same time. I suppose it makes sense, given that her silken voice has a casual shrug to it, reminding the listener that the words—no matter how vital the message—just might not be the most important part of Timony's music.
Of course, you'll spend an eternity trying to decipher her lyrics and find a deeper meaning in the songs on The Shapes, but in the end, Timony will always be one step ahead. Does all this angular guitar agitation, Nugent disses, and pro-choice pleas lead to something bigger, an important message that we're all missing? Not really. Timony is quick to admit that The Shapes "is a happier record. I decided that I just wanted the music to be fun to make, and to play." Well put.