Latest LP from mbilly raises questions after friend's death

On the one hand, it’s not hard to figure out how Portland singer and songwriter M. William Helfrich arrived at the stage name mbilly. On the other hand, mbilly?

Fortunately, his stark, gutty music makes up for any naming affectations. Helfrich’s second album, “Malheur” (named for the county in eastern Oregon where he grew up), features 11 songs he wrote following the unexpected death of a friend he’d mostly fallen out of touch with, combined with the ambivalence toward his hometown. The songs on “Malheur,” he says in the press notes, ask the questions that arose as he sought to understand his reactions to his friend and eastern Oregon.

“I didn’t attempt to answer them,” he says. “In past songs I’ve written I’ve tried to resolve them with an answer of some kind. The nature of the questions asked in these songs is such that there are no simple answers, nothing neat in the way things are wrapped up.”

Musically, mbilly triangulates the dry, desolate air of Castanets and the riveting intensity of Jay Farrar at his bleakest. The title track from “Malheur” puts dark, arid guitar over a hypnotic beat as Helfrich sings in an anguished voice shaded with a touch of reverb. It’s powerful stuff. The album is due June 5, which would have been the day his friend turned 32.


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