Tuesday, March 26, 2019

Ex Hex, before and after

Ex Hex (l-r Mary Timony, Laura Harris, Betsy Wright)
When I first listened to Ex Hex's new album It's Real, I was a bit dismayed by the number of mid-paced tunes. I like when the band rocks out, soaring on their riffs. But subsequent listens taught me that I was listening the wrong way, or listening for the wrong thing, anyway. The songs on the new album sound as if they were born of reflection, not of an urgency for immediate connection; they sound distracted, arrived at, and the measured arrangements reflect that. There are a few eighth-note rockers ("Diamond Drive," "Cosmic Cave," "Radiate") and some 70s posturing, and I hear KISS and Thin Lizzy in the chugging riffs, but mostly guitarist Mary Timony, bassist Betsy Wright, and drummer Laura Harris seem interested in the abstracted ruminating before, and the contemplation after, the burning gesture, the big moment or blow-up. As always, Timony's lead guitar playing is a revelation—there are few guitar-based rock and roll bands out there now whose lead playing sounds like a distinct voice in the band, as full of personality and dimension as a sung vocal. Her playing is Ex Hex's signature sound, like the certain lilt in someone's voice or skip to their walk that you know, and love, as theirs alone.

The album's greatest song is the haunted "Want It To Be True" which sounds like a daydream, the backing Ooh-ooh-ooh's part of the score of a reverie, what thinking sounds like when sung. But something happens in the middle, after the third verse, when the singer says "I don't want to lose control"—the song threatens to do just that, Timony's playing leading the band into a dangerous place as a tidal wave or a thunderstorm or squall takes over the soundscape, threatening....and then the song gains control again, and the opening line, "What kind of things do you tell yourself?" sounds directed at the singer as well as to whomever she's singing about and to. The whole thing might be taking place inside the singer's head as she's driving or sitting at her desk, or in bed, alone, staring at the ceiling—but desire and wistfulness take her into stormy seas until things calm again. Great stuff.

Timony's voice is stately; she sounds as if she's narrating the songs even when she's singing about herself in the first person. That remove isn't icy or impersonal but a measure of her deliberation, and oddly elegant on top of such righteous riffing and the dynamic rhythm section of Wright and Harris, Her vocals work better on It's Real than on the band's debut, Rips, where to my ears her voice sits uncomfortably atop a few of the more rocking songs. I appreciate her singing now more than I every have. Dare I say this is adult stuff. Turn it up.

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