You have to hand it to Ex Hex: they didn’t waste any time. Around this time last fall, the Washington, D.C.-based garage-pop trio, lead by guitarist/singer Mary Timony, had yet to play its first show. The only real evidence of the band’s existence was an early mix of the song “Hot and Cold”, which Timony posted online, then quickly removed. Within a month, the band–which also includes bassist/singer Betsy Wright (Childballads) and drummer Laura Harris (Aquarium, Benjy Ferree)—had joined up with Merge. By spring, “Hot and Cold” had been remixed and released on a three-song single.
And now, only a year in comes Rips, Ex Hex’s debut full-length. It’s the record of the summer, albeit one that’s arrived two months too late—a collection of perfectly lean power-pop tunes that evoke Tom Petty and the Runaways while conjuring the unruly energy of contemporary mid-fi bashers like Thee Oh Sees. Rips sounds fine on headphones or at home, but it’s best enjoyed in the car where it’s possible to feel more perfectly tuned into the music’s steady velocity. The production is clean, but not polished, and the performances are tight. It doesn’t sound like a record that was made in a hurry.
An active musician since the early ’90s—first in Autoclave, then in Helium, and then as a solo artist—Timony hasn’t gotten her due in the last decade and change. After two solo records—Ex Hex (2005) and The Shapes We Make (2007)—were met with muted reactions, she mostly called it quits on touring, popping up only sporadically in groups like Garland of Hours and Soft Power. In 2010, she joined Wild Flag, a bi-coastal quartet that featured former Sleater-Kinney members Carrie Brownstein and Janet Weiss, and seemingly caught a second wind. The band released one well-received full length and traveled extensively, but quietly parted ways last fall. Wild Flag was a potentially tough act to follow for Timony, partially because of the band’s high visibility, which was given extra charge through the ascendance of Brownstein’s comedy sketch show “Portlandia”.
So, it’s heartening to find that Ex Hex is, in a lot of ways, a better band. Wild Flag’s membership was split between D.C. and Portland and, perhaps unintentionally, the band’s songwriting sometimes seemed to ping-pong between different sensibilities. Timony, Harris, and Wright seem more stylistically attuned to one another—after all, they have a closer geographical relationship, which enables them to practice regularly—and Wright’s two contributions to Rips, “How You Got That Girl” and “Radio On”, both slot perfectly into the record’s uniform, neo-roller rink vibe.
The songs look back to ’70s radio rock with some amount of yearning, but Rips isn’t purely motivated by retromania. There’s a bit of environmental pressure built into this record: garage rock is adaptive music, where minimum resources can yield maximum impact, and it can thrive where rents are pricey and practice space is in short supply. You can write it with the people who are around, it plays well in a basement and also on a stage, and it’s easy to know when it’s working. If you can remember a garage rock song two minutes after it’s over, then it’s probably a good one.
All the genre demands is excitement, and Rips is definitely exciting. It’s stripped down, fast, and physical; the songs mostly revolve around scrubby, disappointing dudes and their failings, but the message is never maudlin or tragic. Timony spent years speak-singing, performing lyrics in a cool and detached tone that wavered in and out of pitch. But in Ex Hex, she’s developed a more overtly melodic delivery. As a guitarist, she’s playing a bit below her chops, but her solos are tasteful and on point, pitching up the emotional heft of a song once words won’t cut it anymore.
Over the years, Timony’s own musical style evolved into something fairly distinct, a witchy-sounding and modestly mystical music that bred progressive rock and ’70s British folk with elements of D.C. post-punk. Some of that sound exists in Ex Hex, too, particularly in the modest pace of “Hot and Cold”, but Rips mostly finds the band walking away from Timony’s established voice and pushing toward something more direct and energetic—embracing the past, but also blowing things up and starting again.
from Album Reviews – Pitchfork http://ift.tt/1uNBjH5