By Nick McGaw
A common complaint leveled at left-field bands is that they never just settle down and write a great album. Experimentation is fine for courting critical acclaim and probably for staying interested in your own work, but people all the way from Animal Collective to Neil Young have been accused by more populist-minded listeners of willfully not putting out the killer hit album they’re obviously capable of. It’s an accusation that will dog musicians who are more respected than loved until the end of time. Well, Mary Timony, the leader of the willfully difficult ’90s indie rock staples Helium, has gone and given us the killer hit album I never even thought she was capable of.
Her new band Ex Hex’s debut full-length, “Rips,” is 12 cuts, any one of which could slot into classic rock radio somewhere between The Cars “Just What I Needed” and Joe Jackson’s “Is She Really Going Out With Him” and not sound out of place. It’s an album that, if released back in the ’90s, would have had a good shot at being the indie rock “Jagged Little Pill” – throwing up fistfuls of singles into the Top 40. Released even 10 years ago, when FM radio was primed for a rock revival by the emergence of The Strokes and White Stripes, this album would have become ubiquitous and made Timony boatloads of money. But released in today’s world, Ex Hex’s “Rips” finds itself launching out into a market with no center, against every trend currently dominant in music, and in a radio landscape that for all intents and purposes doesn’t exist. When a killer radio album drops into a world with no more radio market, does it make a sound?
That’s a question of commerce, though, not art. The Ramones first record would sound the same if it sold 100 copies or 100 million copies, and the same is true for Ex Hex. And what it sounds like is hip rock radio from the moment when punk’s energy was mixed into music’s mainstream and birthed New Wave. “Rips” is the record equivalent of a fine-tuned sports car, all gleaming surfaces, raring-to-go fast, and promising a whole lot of fun (perhaps more than it actually delivers). In its way, this is a deeply conservative album. There isn’t a second of music on here that couldn’t have been invented anytime in the past 40 years. By design, it breaks no new ground whatsoever. But this is a great rock and roll record, written and performed by people who know rock and roll inside out and clearly love the form. Whatever the lyrics say, and most of them are workable if uninventive tales of romantic frustration, the real topic of the songs is the history of rock radio from Timony’s youth. “Beast,” for instance, is built around the groove from the Modern Lovers “Roadrunner” (whose vocal hook gives a title to another track here, “Radio On”), while “Hot and Cold” borrows and expands on melodic ideas I first heard in the guitar solo from The Knack’s “My Sharona.”
The album isn’t just a game of spot-the-reference, though. Timony, a fantastic guitar player who up until now has been content to be idiosyncratic more than thrilling, is engaging with the past here, adding melodic and note-perfect fills and solos to the Ramones fast/loud template on “You Fell Apart” and worrying familiar licks into unfamiliar structures throughout. You get the feeling you’re in the hands of a smart artist, one who’s spent years chasing novelty and individuality, rediscovering the joys of tradition and likeability, and finding space for her own formidable talents in populist forms. She sounds like she means it, in other words, not like she’s playing dress-up with her record collection. It’s a subtle difference, hard to put into words, but it’s what divides Kurt Cobain singing Leadbelly’s “Where Did You Sleep Last Night” from Phil Collins singing “Groovy Kind Of Love.”
Mary Timony does so many things right on “Rips,” that it seems like nitpicking to point out the slight things that bothered me. Still, for an album whose songs and performances are as good as any New Wave stuff released in 1979, the production leaves something to be desired. The record has a narrow, pumped-up mix that leans too heavily on the vocals and is covered in the cold and artificial reverb that’s currently fashionable in rock production. I doubt most people who regularly listen to modern music are even going to notice, but it’s the kind of thing that immediately dates music. As a listener who struggled to get into some of the better bands of the 1980s (like The Replacements and Husker Du) because of the dated production choices, I think there’s a real danger of alienating future listeners when you stray from natural-sounding recordings.
And as great as “Rips” is, and it is great, there’s something impersonal about it by design. These are big, relatable, hooky rock songs that sound like they’ve always existed. The fact that Mary Timony and bassist Betsy Wright wrote them seems almost unimportant — a stark contrast to the music Timony has released up until this point. Something like her solo debut, “Mountains” from 2000, is full of low-key songs that marry Timony’s unadorned and casual-sounding voice to odd herky-jerky rhythms and bizarre, highly symbolic lyrics that sound like if Liz Phair was really into Renaissance Faires. It’s music so individual and personal that I’m surprised she found other musicians to play it with her, let alone an audience to listen to it. And if I’m honest, it’s an album I personally prefer to Ex Hex’s “Rips.” Second for second, “Rips” is a near-perfect album, and while it’s certainly easy to like perfection, to enjoy it and admire it, it is particular brands of imperfection that inspire love in a listener.