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'Untame the Tiger' represents a high point of Mary Timony's adventurous career

Merge Records

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. The guitarist, songwriter and singer Mary Timony has just released her first solo album in 15 years. It's called "Untame The Tiger," and rock critic Ken Tucker thinks it represents a new high point in her varied, adventurous career. Timony was on Rolling Stone's list of the greatest guitarists of all time, published last year, and she's familiar to indie rock fans as a member of bands such as Helium, Ex Hex and Wild Flag. Ken says this solo album is a marvelous collection dealing with strong, sometimes contradictory emotions.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NO THIRDS")

MARY TIMONY: (Singing) Check the situation. Is it cruel or is it kind? You wander in the desert trying to find time. The white flags above us fly on our doubt. Time to meet the mountain. There's no other way out.

KEN TUCKER, BYLINE: Mary Timony's guitar playing over a 30-plus years career, has been characterized by a firmness and unyielding, flintiness that conveys a confidence in making music, even when the songs themselves are detailing doubt, vulnerability or loneliness. Her new album, "Untame The Tiger," unfolds like a journey in which the traveler maps her emotions onto every scene. In the song "Dominos," for example, Timony adds to the list of great rock 'n' roll road songs, singing about going 90 in the wrong direction, riding next to someone whom she's decided she's no longer in love with. She doesn't feel trapped in that car, though. If anything, she's feeling the power she has to control her destiny.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DOMINOES")

TIMONY: (Singing) When you said it was forever, you looked me right in the eye. The next second, you were gone. And that's when I realized love was a lie. Going 90 in the wrong direction. I was right beside you trying to steal back my affection I really never thought I'd be out here on my own. Living in this desert half frequency zone. Don't you know?

TUCKER: On the song "Don't Disappear," a lyric about comforting a troubled friend could also be Timony talking to herself, perhaps without realizing it. When she reaches the chorus of the song, Timony lifts her voice and her guitar into a brighter, sunnier place. She sings harmony with herself and plucks out chords that would fit right into a Beach Boys song, saying, don't be afraid, and uses an odd, soothing phrase. I've got you in my brain parade.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DON'T DISAPPEAR")

TIMONY: (Singing) I see you there, beyond everywhere. The garden of time grows upwards in my mind. If you fall, don't be afraid. I've got you in my brain parade. If you're close to the edge of that emotion, come on. Fall back in to my devotion.

TUCKER: Most of the time here, the music is made by a core trio of guitar, bass and drums. Some of the prettiest drumming is done by Dave Mattacks, the 75-year-old former member of Fairport Convention going strong. Timony's vocals are so plainspoken, her details so vivid, it's as though she's recording the audiobook of a novel she's written.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "UNTAME THE TIGER")

TIMONY: (Singing) Thought I was through with you when the tiger was tamed. But now my brain is running hard, and I'm counting all the rain - want to go where your animal runs free. I hear it call my name. What do I get from loving you? Just this song about the pain.

TUCKER: That's from the title song, "Untame The Tiger." At about 5 1/2 minutes long, it features a languid, dreamy instrumental intro before her vocal abruptly picks up the pace. The song becomes a piece of brisk pop music about realizing a relationship you thought was over is still very much alive. It's the tiger that hasn't been tamed. Her words try to downplay the intensity of these thoughts. At one point, she calls "Untame The Tiger" just this song about the pain. But Timony's words are contradicted by her guitar playing a gorgeous, galloping solo that becomes the heart of the song.

(SOUNDBITE OF MARY TIMONY SONG, "UNTAME THE TIGER")

TUCKER: I'll give you one more example of the range of sounds Timony taps into here. On "The Guest," Timony makes her guitar do the work of a country music pedal steel guitar, creating a high, keening sound that rises up to meet her as she greets her old friend, loneliness.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE GUEST")

TIMONY: (Singing) Hello, loneliness. You've come back home. You were the only one who never left me alone. I try and I try to say goodbye, but you insist. You insist.

TUCKER: More than once listening to this album, I was reminded of something Carrie Brownstein, her bandmate in the group Wild Flag, once wrote describing her friend's guitar playing. This is the sound a wound makes. On "Untame The Tiger," it sounds as though the wound is healing.

GROSS: Ken Tucker reviewed Mary Timony's new album, called "Untame The Tiger." After we take a short break, TV critic David Bianculli will review the new miniseries "Shogun." It's based on the James Clavell novel that was also adapted into a 1980 miniseries that starred Richard Chamberlain. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF ERROLL GARNER'S "IT'S ONLY A PAPER MOON") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ken Tucker reviews rock, country, hip-hop and pop music for Fresh Air. He is a cultural critic who has been the editor-at-large at Entertainment Weekly, and a film critic for New York Magazine. His work has won two National Magazine Awards and two ASCAP-Deems Taylor Awards. He has written book reviews for The New York Times Book Review and other publications.