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By Adam Arrigo

Photo by JB Galusha

Sean McCarthy is a really nice guy. In fact, on the surface, he might just be one of the nicest people in Boston. Anyone who knows him personally and has seen his band, Helms, has witnessed something fairly remarkable: the quintessential example of the separation between artist and art. If an artist’s work were a direct reflection of his or her immediate personality, Helms would sound like an early Beach Boys tune; instead, Helms’ sound could be more aptly likened to the experience of being knifed in a telephone booth. Helms’ third release, Secret Doors, is no exception, and finds the Allston-based trio fully immersed in the DIY aesthetic, featuring lo-fi basement production, handmade artwork, and a meandering yet cohesive tone.

The title alone hints at the record’s pervasive theme of secrets — or rather, the furtive nature of emotions. The record is not only their best to date, but also the most affirming of their characteristic sound. McCarthy’s subtle, often talky, Pixies-esque vocals occupy a sort of secret place in the mix, piercing the dirty array of guitars, bass, and drums with quiet, yet poignant poetry. McCarthy’s prose is abstractly angst-ridden, yet wields a power in depth and vision found so rarely in alternative music, evoking anxiety with Joycean stream-of-consciousness imagery: “So I took my mouth, clattering like a trap, into the backyard and buried it out behind the trees / And you could hear it flapping, like a broken bird in the dark, as I dropped it down about four feet, and then the taste of dirt and the beautiful quiet.” In the hands of a lesser vocalist, such content could easily be construed as confessional or indulgent; however, McCarthy’s genius lies in the delivery.

Each of the ten tracks off Secret Doors represents a specific means of entry into the realm of Helms’ songwriting. Each track immediately transports the listener into a secret space of quiet confession, where the metaphysics of space and time are blurred and often defined by visceral images and abstract shreds of sensory memory: “And the cigarettes on the swing sets glow red streaks in the night / And the squeak of the chain says they’re planning again / And the old man can’t sleep with the noise.”

While Helms have always mixed the vocals relatively low in previous releases, lending their records an undeniably “live” dynamic, the vocals on Secret Doors are perhaps the lowest yet, which may frustrate some listeners who are used to pop production. However, in the opposite way that Spinal Tap credits both guitarists as “lead guitar,” Helms’ liner notes credit both singers, Sean McCarthy and Tina Helms, as “backing vocals,” seeming to reflect an intended emphasis on instruments and de-emphasis on vocals. The actual effect, however, is paradoxical in nature, as the vocals’ low volume and intriguing lyrical content beg the listener to hone in on the vocals.

Sean McCarthy is a much better singer than he thinks, and while Tina Helms and Dan McCarthy comprise an impressively strong and cohesive rhythm section, it is Sean McCarthy’s impassioned delivery and the group’s literary core that allow Helms to transcend classification from a “great” to a “groundbreaking” band. With the release of Secret Doors, it has never been clearer that Helms is, and has been for a long time now, one of the most important — if not the most important — bands on the Boston scene, and they have always occupied that role with quiet humility. On some frequencies, one could dub them “the best kept secret” of post-rock; although, after attending any sold-out Helms show, or talking to any of their intensely devoted followers, Helms doesn’t feel like a secret. In a city that has always been so protective of its local bands moving on to bigger audiences, Helms occupy the precarious position of being too good to stay local, yet not accessible enough to easily translate into the mainstream. Listening to Secret Doors, though, doesn’t lend one the impression that Helms is interested in mainstream success. For Helms, making music is a cathartic act, and the record feels nothing like manufactured fan bait. Rather, it is a definitively honest piece of art that seems to have come into existence out of necessity alone.

It’s a baffling concept: that people will go to the Middle East Upstairs bar on a Monday, Wednesday, or Friday night and order a PBR from Sean McCarthy; they’ll engage in some mundane chat, during which Sean will exclaim, “Right on,” and the customer will leave the bar sipping his drink, never knowing that the bartender he just spoke to writes groundbreaking music. You can watch him on any of these nights, pouring beer and serving falafel with a smile that says, “I have a secret.”