Saturday, October 25, 2014

album review: 'rips' by ex hex

I've talked about in the past how indie rock musicians tend to have several bands and side-projects firing at once, some in the hopes that one will actually strike gold, and some because they have different musical ideas and genres they want to explore. But indie rock did not invent this phenomenon by any stretch, and if you want to look at where it's probably most prevalent, you need to look at punk.

And the story of this band begins around two decades ago in the exploding punk and indie scenes of the 90s, particularly surrounding feminist-themed riot grrl. The first important band of the scene was Sleater-Kinney, the critically beloved band full of explosive energy and who were way more mature and intelligent than most punks of their scene. They released several essential albums throughout the 90s before fading away gracefully in the 2000s to go on hiatus. The second important act of the time was Helium, an alt-rock act that would come to be fronted by Mary Timony, an eclectic singer-songwriter would bounce around a fair bit, the tepid reception of Autoclave to a few solo efforts that really didn't go anywhere. And in the late 2000s, all of their careers appeared to have stalled out somewhat, at least in music. Carrie Brownstein was focusing on the cult comedy show Portlandia, Janet Weiss was doing work with Stephen Malkmus and Conor Oberst, and Mary Timony was working on one of many side projects.

Yet in 2010, with keyboardist Rebecca Cole of The Minders, they managed to pull together into the supergroup Wild Flag for a self-titled album, and it seemed like a second life had been breathed into their careers, especially considering Brownstein used her TV show to give the band visibility most indie rock acts never got. The album was critically acclaimed for damn good reason, and from there, it seemed like anything was possible. And yet the success of Wild Flag was short-lived, as it was announced that Sleater-Kinney would be reuniting for a comeback record next year. Undaunted, Mary Timony called up Laura Harris, formerly of Aquarium, and Betsy Wright, formerly of Fire Tapes and Childballads for a new group called Ex Hex, named after one of her solo albums and in record time, a debut album was ready, called Rips. And let's be fair, there were some real expectations for this band, given Mary Timony's knack for melodic riffs and deftly textured songwriting. So what did we get with this?

Well, we got a pretty damn solid album, that's for sure. Like most Mary Timony-related projects, Rips by Ex Hex is pretty damn great - hook-driven, well-written and performed, intelligent, and it does exactly what it's designed to do, in this case be a note-perfect modernization of what Joan Jett's band The Runaways would have sounded like in the modern world of indie rock, at least in terms of instrumentation. What makes Ex Hex standout, however, is a sense of cohesion, clarity in songwriting, and very different attitude that the reckless blunt power that defined Jett. This is a more refined, more controlled project, and there are definitely consequences to that, mostly good but a few bad.

So let's start with Mary Timony herself. If you're familiar with her earlier material, her mode of delivery was more of a stiffer, sing-talk delivery that tended to work with her more verbose and literate songs, but that changes here for a more melodic focus, likely to try and emulate some of that rougher retro style. Then again, Timony is a very different person than Jett is, and it comes through most in her delivery. She's nowhere near as raw or aggressive, but that's not saying she isn't committed to her material or isn't expressive - she just has control, and for the emotions she's trying to capture on this album, she's perfectly capable of delivering in a way that matches the lyrical framing perfectly. I will say I'm not always a fan of the vocal production they put on the backing vocalists - the whoosh feels a little overstated and doesn't really fit with the rest of the production - but for the most part they add some welcome presence to Timony's more restrained tone in a very '70s/80s girl group' vibe.

Then again, if I'm looking at a larger issue with this album, it'd probably be in the production. Now for the most part, I completely get why they went for a cleaner sound in comparison with the Runaways, which were a looser, rougher act. Ex Hex is more prim and poised - there's rough edges in the prominent guitar licks and some songs like 'You Fell Apart', 'Waterfall', 'War Paint', and 'New Kid' show more of the raucous energy of punk, but for the most part this is guitar driven rock 'n roll in the cleanest possible terms. And that's not a bad thing by any stretch - Mary Timony writes incredibly strong melodic licks, and her guitar solos on songs like 'Beast', 'Waste Your Time', Radio On', and especially on 'War Paint' are some sticky, genuinely catchy, and very prominent in the mix. And while her melody lines aren't quite as strong as they were with Wild Flag, this album is aiming for a more groove-driven focus than pure melody, and with the solid bass lines, it definitely delivers in that department. I just wish that the drum production was better - unlike practically every other acts I've covered this year, the drums feel nestled midway to the back of the mix - you can hear them, but the cymbals and snares don't have a lot of crack or presence and the kick drums feel oddly muffled. Now that could have been intentional - there is a tight feel of control to the record that more textured drums could have fractured - but the larger problem is that it feels inconsistent. There are moments that have a spark, but then you have songs like 'Hot And Cold' where they feel just a little too quiet to match up with the rest of the grooves. Really a nitpick on a record when the melodic grooves are as strong and well-structured as they are, but it was distracting.

This takes us to songwriting, and like her spiritual forebears on this album, Mary TImony wrote a selection of starkly painted and yet fairly nuanced pop rock tracks, mostly detailing a sequence of guys who screwed up royally in relationships - hence the title Rips. Now this sort of subject matter isn't exactly anything new, and Timony is the sort of songwriter to never really get that descriptive in terms of any sexual misconduct - on 'You Fell Apart' the guy in question is hunting for 'girly action' - but that's not saying there isn't nuance, both through the lyrics or her delivery. Take the opening song 'Don't Wanna Lose' - she's not so much angry at the cheating, as she seems aware he'll come around, but more impatient that he's not taking action with her. What this implies is a real attitude of maturity throughout the entire record - not so much raw passionate anger but subtler emotions where she's more annoyed and exasperated than anything else, which adds a lot of humanity to this album. What seems to be the underlying theme is that the guys in question aren't so much malicious but just kind of clueless and self-obsessed, not really engaged in the girl's feelings, and that blunts some of the anger. 

At the same time, though, you will start wondering why our narrator bothers with guys who, for instance, behave like an ass at a party on 'Waterfalls', leading girls on on 'Radio On', flaunts a new relationship under an ex's nose on 'How You Got That Girl', or concocts all sorts of hypermasculine fantasies about himself on songs like 'Beast', 'Hot And Cold', and 'War Paint'. And as she expresses on songs like 'You Fell Apart' and 'Everywhere', it's completely transparent if you look hard enough - and yet at many points, even despite him wasting her time, she's still with him on some of these songs. And this gets to the root themes of the album and getting to why people allow themselves to be exploited even though they can see right through it. There's a very stark parallel between this record and Ty Segall's Manipulator that came out earlier this year, but where Segall's nihilism has him believing everyone is a fundamentally crappy human being and relationships are just layers of manipulation, Ex Hex has a slightly more human and complex picture. It shows how the allure of mystery or affectations that people create for themselves do have power, especially they start believing their own lies. And while some of it is just human nature overpowering a rational mind, it's more of a survival instinct. The track 'New Kid' initially feels out of place on this album as it's a warning for a new kid to be wary of schoolmates who might exploit or attack her for no good reason, and yet it rings all the more true when it comes to advice for relationships, most of which the narrator knows from experience tend to deteriorate. And then we get to the last two tracks, 'Everywhere' and 'Outro', the former is where the relationship actually ends, and yet the girl still searches for it - she knew it had to end, but deep down she didn't want that. And 'Outro' gives us resolution, with the lyric 'we lay beside our minds and watch the time grow', implying a separation between her emotions and rational thought, and with the two of them coming to consensus, there was nothing left but to just end it. And that's really the crux of the theme: if you bring your emotions and rational thought in line with each other in crappy relationships, they will end - but then you'll be alone with the truth, and if this album says anything, it's that nobody can handle the truth, especially about themselves.

So to summarize, I really Rips by Ex Hex. I've cooled on it a little since the first few times I've listened to it, and the production issues do remain annoying, and I do wish the melody lines were a shade or two more complex, but as it is, it's an extremely solid record that effectively accomplishes what it's designed to do. For me, it's a very strong 7/10 and definitely a recommendation, especially if you're a fan of oldschool Runaways and some lyrics that are surprisingly cerebral if you dig between the lines. And in terms of melodic, guitar driven, female-fronted indie rock this year, you're not going to find many better. 

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