Friday, March 22, 2019

album review: 'it's real' by ex hex know, it's going to be a cheap tagline repeated by many fans and critics following this group upon hearing that the album is dropping, but it's true: somehow it's real, we're getting another Ex Hex album!

Now for those of you out of the loop, Ex Hex is a scuzzy, garage-leaning, almost punk indie rock act fronted by Mary Timony, who you might know from Helium or especially in recent years from her involvement in Wild Flag, an all-too-brief project fronted by Carrie Brownstein of Sleater-Kinney that put out one project and then folded when Sleater-Kinney reformed. And honestly, I thought a similar fate was going to crop up for Ex Hex - Mary Timony pulled up Betsy Wright on bass and Laura Harris on drums and cut together a straightforward but critically adored album called Rips in 2014. Now I did review it five years ago, and while I was a bit cooler on it than most - Timony never quite wowed me as a frontwoman and there were some rough patches in the production - the hooks were phenomenal and the writing was great, which led the project to maintain some solid replay value as just a great three-piece rock act. But it's been five years - you'd think the group would strike when the iron was hot, especially with the critical acclaim, but we finally got a follow-up - so what did Ex Hex deliver on It's Real?

So here's the thing: if you're just happy hearing Ex Hex back on their scuzzy, hook-driven grind where the melodic riffs are plentiful, you'll absolutely get that - this is a band with such solid fundamentals that a base level of quality is baked-in. That being said, the more listens I gave to It's Real, the more I got the uncanny feeling that despite the trio beefing up their sound thanks to the choices of guitar tone and production, there's an odd sense that Ex Hex is looking backwards with this album. And it's tough to describe, because the album doesn't feel like it's pandering to the rockist critics that were always going to overpraise this approach, but if you're the sort who gets off on obvious parallels in tone and melodic progression to classic rock, I can see this being the album for you - even if that may have come at the expense of where the band could have gone in other areas.

But that also means criticizing this album gets a little tricky, because while the easy route is to just rattle off all the tones to which Ex Hex is playing homage - which span from Thin Lizzy, the Velvet Underground and Def Leppard to Joan Jett, Blondie and Pat Benatar - what I find more interesting is how Ex Hex steps beyond their influences. Granted, one of the big problems with beefing up the scuzz and riffs is that Mary Timony still isn't a powerhouse singer in the same way as many of those late-70s, early-80s rock singers were - that's one of the reasons Rips had more stripped back, contemporary indie rock songs that her voice could match - so the solution she, the band, and producer Jonah Takagi is to pile on the reverb, pump up the backing vocals, and hope to God the melodic hooks will stick more directly. Which... yeah, I could have seen working if Timony had even a trace of rawness or deeper edge to her delivery like Benatar or Jett or Debbie Harry did, but her throatier timbre and more stately delivery doesn't really ratchet up that intensity the way it should - which, correct me if I'm wrong, wasn't that kind of the point of that raw era of garage and arena rock? Granted, that prim but cutting professionalism was always a factor with Ex Hex, but it's a bit of a jarring fit now when there are so many moments to serve as homage. More to the point, it's hard to avoid the feeling that Ex Hex are still looking for other tones and choices to differentiate themselves as a three-piece, and I'm not convinced they really add that much: 'Want It To Be True' descends into a blown out, noise rock bridge that doesn't fit well with anything, and that's as true if not moreso about the compressed vocal filters on 'No Reflection' and 'Talk To Me'. And I'd be fine with them if they felt like knowing callbacks, but just like on their debut with some of its odd production detours, they feel superfluous as attempts to bring a modern touch that doesn't really mesh, especially when they could have just fixed my big production quibble from the last album and given the kickdrums and snares some actual consistent punch!

And I say all this with the acknowledgement that, again, the rest of this album is really goddamn solid and even in some cases hits harder than Rips did: the main melody on 'Rainbow Shiner' is nasty as hell, even if the vocals are a bit drowned out on 'Good Times' it's still got a killer tune, the jangling bounce, great bassline and terrific solo on 'Diamond Drive' is reminiscent of the Velvet Underground in the best possible way, and while 'Another Dimension' does feel oddly long, it's a phenomenal rock song that wouldn't sound out of place in 1983 and kicks about as much ass! And I'd be remiss to not highlight the songwriting, where again, Mary Timony shows a lot of chops in writing well-framed relationship toxicity... even if it's a little hard to avoid how much her songwriting is retracing similar arcs to what we got on Rips. Once again we've got her keen eye for the unsteady deflections of male ego and insensitivity less out of active malice but rather a sense of cluelessness and inability to fully process their own emotions - but given that the sound is bigger, the metaphors are bigger as well, framing them as forces of nature across elemental lines. But for as much as you could raise the same questions I had with Rips - the slightly patronizing air taken with some of these guys that for some reason she continues to be drawn to time and time again - I do like the subtler flaws and hints that cast her own insecurities and failings in sharper relief to level the scales. This is where cranking up the old-school rock and roll veneer has value for blinding them both in raw but shallow emotion, highlighting the disposability of it all... but songs like 'Diamond Drive' highlights a mirrored situation to his willful blindness on the first few songs, where she's ready to move on with jaded exasperation and he's seeing feelings materialize. And the vampirism implied on 'No Reflection' is a great metaphor in how guys love to cultivate the moody and mysterious vibe but never truly encounter the darker insecurities within themselves... and yet she's drawn to all of it anyway! 

And if we're looking for the most concrete departure from Rips, its in how the themes resolve, at least on the surface - that project was quite clear in how when the bad relationship snaps into view both logically and emotionally, it's pretty much doomed. And that's a rational conclusion to reach... but it's a lonely place that can lead to self-destructive levels of introspection, whereas It's Real chooses to lean into an emotional truth that has persisted between the two of them . Hell, they're both self-destructive, image-obsessed, and distant, making sense on another dimension where both are forces of nature that seem more caught in each other's gravity wells than anything else, so in a dispassionate world why not try to make something make sense, which is why you get the note of possible reconciliation on 'Talk To Me'... and yet the ambiguous ending leaving her waiting is very telling indeed. In other words, it could well echo Rips with how placing faith in such a person is a bad idea... but it leaves the door open in the chance to be wrong, and while I'm not sure it's more mature, it does feel more honest.

So as a whole... look, again, if you liked Rips you're probably going to like this as well, as Ex Hex are a stream-lined hook-delivery system with scuzzy riffs, solid basslines, and great solos - a meat-and-potatoes rock act through and through with writing that punches higher. But on some level I keep expecting there to be more, and with the more obvious callbacks to earlier bands it feels like the sound is only haphazardly living up to the promise and subtle complexity of the writing, and on some level should hit harder than it does. As such for me it feels like a bit of a lateral move from Rips, which is why I'm giving this project a 7/10 and a recommendation, but a bit of a qualified one. If you liked that 2014 project and want to hear more, this'll certainly satisfy and vice-versa. Otherwise... eh, still worth a listen, but I'd check your expectations.

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