rom the very first notes of The Golden Dove, the sophomore solo release from Mary Timony, formerly of Helium, it’s no chore to discern where she’s coming from. At once, the music is reminiscent of both the melodic lo-fi of her former band and of Pavement; while Timony’s mid-range, endearingly flat vocal brings to mind Liz Phair (minus the potty mouth, but with a healthy dose of art-school abstractness).
The Golden Dove is lo-fi that desperately wants to be more; many songs striving for a sonorous, sweeping tone that belies that genre’s inherent sound. This can be also seen in the fact that the album is overflowing with unpredictable arrangement and instruments uncharacteristic to lo-fi, such as brass horns, string sections and fuzzy keyboards. At times, such as in “Dr. Cat,” when the dispersed synthesizer floats into the mix, The Golden Dove even adopts a sound that’s vaguely new wave-ish (though I use that term with great trepidation). Almost like a Soft Cell track that’s been left eons out in the rain, forgotten to the rust and weeds.
While The Golden Dove has an awful lot of different things happening within it, it never seems overly messy or unfocused. In fact, quite the opposite is true with this album – it’s a very concentrated and concise affair. With the obvious exception of Timony’s lyrics, of course, which are almost like a sedate, feminist version of Frank Black prose. Weird, to be sure, but meaning can be discerned if you’re willing to try hard enough.
Timony is at her best, though, when she drops the purposeful obtuseness, such as in the muscular “Blood Tree.” Instead of slinging off bizarre images of “50-eyed peacocks watching me,” she opts for more literate voice, shown in lines as the following: “...doing drugs, popping pills/Shouting out your window at girls/You showed me pictures of your ex-girlfriend/On the beach without her shirt on/And it made me sick/And I didn’t tell you...” While her lyrics are undoubtedly constantly intriguing, it can sometimes lessen the impact of her forceful, yet somehow reluctant, voice.
“The Owl’s Escape” is one example where her cryptic imagery does work. Filled with Timony’s expansive, echoed vocal, and a spectral piano that glides through the song on gossamer chords of strings, “The Owl’s Escape” is a haunting portrait of what appears to be an abusive relationship. “What will get me through this night/’Til the owl begins to sing again?/...and even though I was at home/When the black raven knocked at my door/I hid from him ‘til he went away/I escaped the gore,” Timony sings in a voice stretched as thin as parchment, and fragile as silk.
The head-bobbing percussion and warbling organ in “Musik And Charming Melodee” brightens the room after “Owl’s” somber tone, eventually leading into handclaps and a high-pitched cyclic guitar, with more carefree lyrics such as “Music sets us free/I didn’t know this could be charming melody/Music of the spheres/Cover the dust of ancient years.”
The Golden Dove is never really an elated affair, however. Most of the songs range from the mid-tempo to flat-out dirges, exemplified by the haunting “14 Horses,” with call-and-response vocals laid over the slow pounding of drums, pervasive with an air of doom. Lines such as “I fell in a poisoned well/Through the waters I saw Hell” aren’t going to spice up a party either, especially when backed with dissonant ambient electronics, gurgling with menace.
A sense of weary melodrama informs most of the songs, especially in tracks like the swaying, moody folk of “Magic Power,” which given different production wouldn’t have sounded out of place on REM’s masterwork, Automatic For The People.
The album skirts fairly close to solid rock songs on rare occasions, but darts away just as quickly, like a fish who senses a disturbance in the water. “Ant’s Dance” begins with an explosive burst of guitar, but then settles down into a soft groove propelled by Eastern-flavored guitar and drawn-out brass arrangements.
It’s hard to tell whether “Dryad And The Mule” is a slightly alterered reprise of “Magic Power,” or a thinly veiled re-write. Either way, it’s not needed and especially hurts the album as it’s placed right at the end, followed by the jazzy but inconsequential instrumental, “Ash And Alice,” ending the album on a real “ehhh” note.
Overall, Timony’s actual songwriting could use a bit of work. Most of the songs are pleasant enough while the disc is spinning, but your brain forms a Teflon barrier to them afterwards, and precious few moments will linger in your head, even after repeated spins. But while The Golden Dove does have its shortcomings, it’s by no means a bad album – just a somewhat unfulfilling one. Don’t set your expectations too high, and you’ll find a perfectly reasonable album for that oft-delayed spring cleaning you’ve been meaning to do.
Reviewed by: Keith Gwillim
Reviewed on: 2003-09-01